Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but everyone knows “cute” when they see it. You can’t miss it in eastern quolls, adorable little spotted marsupials that are native to Australia.
In March 2018, 20 quolls were transplanted from Tasmania to the mainland of Australia, where they went extinct 50 years ago.
Meet the Aussie natives that are as bold as they are beguiling.
With ears like a lemur, a mouse face, a cat-like body and white polka dots on their thick fur, quolls certainly have a signature look. (See “Endangered Eastern Quoll Babies Seen For The First Time In Decades.”)
Their charms aren’t very visible in the wild, though. Quolls are nocturnal, mostly snoozing the day away in their dens and foraging at night.
And they aren’t picky eaters. Quolls will eat insects or carrion, and will hunt rats, rabbits, birds, and lizards—even animals larger than themselves.
“I watched a quoll lead a devil on a merry dance around a carcass—the devil would chase it away—only to beat the devil back to the food to steal a few bites each time,” he says.
And why not? It’s fun to mess with your cousins, and quolls are related to Tasmanian devils. Both are carnivorous marsupials in the family Dasyuridae.
Quolls are also more distantly related to the extinct thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, says Nicholas Dexter, senior project officer at Booderee National Park in New South Wales, where quolls were recently reintroduced. (Related: Has This Aussie Trio Finally Found the Tasmanian Tiger?)
Northern quolls are also endangered, having fallen prey to their prey. Quoll populations fell by 95 percent after 1935 when toxic cane toads were introduced to Australia. Some quolls, however, are averse to munching on the toads, and a recent study has found this is likely a heritable trait. Quolls with two parents showing “toad-smart” behavior were far less likely to try a non-lethal toad leg than other quolls were. Even hybrids, with just one toad-savvy parent, showed the same behavior.
Researchers also released a mix of pure-bred northern quolls and hybrids on toad-filled Indian Island, and after a year some of the quoll offspring still thrived among the toads despite some population decline, suggesting the gene may have been passed down.
Quoll of the Wild
With all their skills, how did eastern quolls go extinct on Australia’s mainland? They were outfoxed.
Introduced from Britain in the early 19th century, foxes “spread throughout the southern half of the continent, excluding Tasmania,” Dexter says. Many mammals were driven to extinction in the wild, including species of bettongs, bridle nailtail wallabies, and the eastern quolls.
Tasmania “has acted as a Noah’s Ark for some of these species, such as the eastern quoll,” he says.
The 20 eastern quolls reintroduced to Booderee in March didn’t have an easy time, either. Only four have survived, with six being killed predators, including foxes, and four hit by cars.
Some mortalities were expected, Anthony says, but changes will likely be made in the existing program. Devil’s Cradle has already expanded the wild space for its pre-release quolls.
The hope is that future generations of quolls born at Booderee will be more fearful of dangers such as people, traffic, and domestic dogs, Dexter says.
And the next generation is already here. This month, three of the reintroduced female quolls gave birth to five joeys each.
Eastern quolls can have up to 20 offspring at a time, each “the size of a grain of rice,” Anthony says. Quoll moms have only six nipples, though, so life gets competitive right away, even during the eight weeks that babies stay in mom’s pouch.
Does everyone instantly fall in love with the quolls?
“Yes,” Dexter says, “especially when they stand on their hind feet and look at you like meerkats in spotty pajamas.”
It’s hard to argue with that.