Seeing ghosts

I am getting better at tracking foxes. I stand at the corner of two footpads in the forest and know that there will be a scat there, somewhere, if I look hard enough. The reek of a scent-post cuts across my nostrils, even while I am thinking of other things. Driving down a sandy road, I turn a corner and somehow know that it is a good place to set a trap. Sure enough, there are fox prints in the sand and two days later I capture Rusty.

Fox footprint

Sandy soil makes tracking much easier!

The tracks of extinct species, however, are fainter. Animals that only fifty or a hundred years ago bred and fought for food and hunted prey are missing from this landscape. Our memories fade fast: I’ve never seen a wild quoll and don’t know where to look for their footprints.  When my grandparents moved to Healesville in the 50’s, bandicoots dug up the lawn; now only yabbies disturb the grass, and many locals wouldn’t recognise a bandicoot.

Long-nosed bandicoot

It’s an intriguing idea though, that the ghosts of these animals remain; that in a living species’ choice of food or shelter we can see its avoidance of an extinct competitor or its strategy for escaping predators of the past.

Bandicoot digging with a broken truffle shell (lower left)

Bandicoot digging with a broken truffle shell (lower left)

Sooty and Powerful Owls today compete strongly for possums, revealing the loss of bettongs and rabbit-rats that the Sooty Owls once preyed upon.

Native truffles still bear fruit, waiting for a potoroo to smell them out and spread their spores, when the potoroos are gone.

Even plants tell stories: trunks that lean away from nothing grew in the shade of larger tree, now cut down.

The living join hands and the dance goes on. New species pick up the same rhythm, add steps of their own. Foxes fill the mainland niche of predator, while devils fight back in Tasmania. Wedge-tails feed on rabbits. Kangaroos look both ways when crossing between golf course and primary school.

The old dancers are easily forgotten.  Even their names sounds strange: White-footed Rabbit-rat, Crescent Nail-tail Wallaby, Pig-footed Bandicoot…

There’s a lot to learn from tracking ghosts.

Gould's 1863 painting of white-footed rabbit-rats

White-footed Rabbit-rats were once widespread across south-eastern Australia. Painting by Gould.


This blog was inspired by talks at the 60th Australian Mammal Society conference.   Rohan Bilney and colleagues’ papers on owl diet provide a fascinating glimpse into the lost mammals of Gippsland and competition between sooty and powerful owls.  

10 thoughts on “Seeing ghosts

  1. Lovely writing, Bron. So looking forward to more as your work progresses. I do admire foxes and their guile, and have shot hundreds (with mixed feelings). Spent some years managing an EBB population which took a lot of time on fox control, only to see the population collapse during drought.

  2. Beaut piece of writing Bron, perceptive, something rarely seen. Seems much of our wildlife never learned to flee. I’ve sat out at night at Scotia and had bilbies walk right up to me, and at home in Melb the ringtails will just sit, a cat smorgasboard. Seems Aust extinctions are a result of this behaviour AND intro predators. Re “we can see its avoidance of an extinct competitor or its strategy for escaping predators of the past ” I wonder how should we ‘see’ the ghosts of past predator behaviour when prey species just freeze?

  3. Pingback: Join the dots with Australia’s best ecology blogs – Ian Lunt Ecology

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