Of fire and ferals

Life’s tough when you’re a fox. Bandicoots don’t just sit around waiting for you to catch them. And when you finally sniff one out, all that dense understorey gets in the way of a speedy chase.

But what happens if there’s no understorey in the way? Does the fox’s job become easier? And do things become a lot tougher for bandicoots?

In a land that is increasingly fire-prone, the interactions between predators, fire and native mammals in forest ecosystems is an important knowledge gap for land managers aiming to conserve native fauna. Both planned (or prescribed) fires and wildfires tend to remove a lot of understorey vegetation cover, at least temporarily.

Hradsky_fox_burntveg

A fox checks out recently-burnt forest in the Otway Ranges (photo: B. Hradsky)

During my PhD with the Fire Ecology and Biodiversity group at the University of Melbourne, I worked with an Honours student, Craig Mildwaters, and land management agencies, to determine how foxes, feral cats and their native prey responded to a prescribed burn.  Our work was recently published in the Journal of Mammalogy.

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Transmission recommences

Frantic typing.

[Crickets chirp in blog-land]

More typing.

[Crickets]

Typing.

[The un-climatic click of a thesis being submitted electronically]

Much driving for brief, wonderful holiday

[birds singing in flooded river, orcas tail-whacking as they cruise seal rocks, crunching noises of a bandicoot devouring carrot scraps]

Commencement of post-doc. Enlightenment about the commuter lifestyle.

[modulated voice-over from the metro train lady, apologising for any inconvenience caused]

Minor revisions of thesis approved within 30 minutes – did I really need to spend several months preparing them??

[thwunk as I drop two boxes of bound theses, narrowly missing my toe]

Futile scurrying around university trying to find someone (anyone??) who will accept my final hardbound thesis.

Joyous email, entitled ‘Completion Letter’

[Crickets fade as blog transmission recommences]

Ian Lunt reckons you should never blog in your PJs. He’s totally right.

But how about in your fox onesie?

onesie_blog

They wouldn’t all fit in the photo, but besides the onesie and the mug, this PhD has led to me being the proud owner of two pairs of fox earrings, one pair of cat earrings, two beautiful paintings of foxes, and one set of fox notepaper. Mum really wanted to buy me a fox statue last birthday too, but I talked her out of it. Lucky I don’t work on slugs!

Is anyone else the recipient of this study-animal-themed present phenomenon?  What’s your best gift so far?

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. Continue reading

Trespassing

It’s dark. It’s raining (it nearly always is – this area gets over two metres rainfall a year). The chunky 4WD tyres are slick with mud. And in front of us is a sign with huge red letters: NO TRESSPASSING. KEEP OUT. And a high barb-wired fence. Damn.

We’re looking for Rush. Rush is a young male fox I fitted with a GPS tracking collar a month ago. He used to live in a small patch of recently burnt forest, holing up in a tree-fern gully during the day and then scouting through the bush and nearby paddocks overnight. A concise home-range, only a kilometre across, which overlapped neatly with Cinnamon’s – I suspect they are siblings. But this morning his collar sent me an email from a completely new location, nearly 4 km from where he’s been before (very funky technology, this! Saves me an incredible amount of driving in circles looking for non-existent foxes).

Rush-the-fox waking up

Rush-the-fox, shortly after I fitted him with a tracking collar (Photo: Lauren Engledow)

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