Survey reveals quokka numbers decimated, a year after devastating bushfire

October 31, 2016 by Lisa Morrison, Sciencenetwork Wa, Science Network WA
Survey reveals quokka numbers decimated, a year after devastating bushfire
Quokka foraging in an open area of forest adjacent to dense shelter habitat. Credit: Karlene Bain/WWF-Aus

Quokkas are popular 'selfie' photograph subjects for visitors to Rottnest Island, but the 'happiest animal on earth' has less to smile about in the South West, a year after a devastating bushfire.

One of WA's worst bushfires decimated quokka numbers near Northcliffe, 360kms south of Perth, according to conservationists.

The blaze, sparked by lightning strike in February 2015, burned 98,000 hectares of quokka habitat.

Wildlife ecologist Karlene Bain says only 39 out of 500 quokkas remain in the fire affected area – a 77 per cent decline.

Dr Bain says the fire was "devastating" for the Northcliffe sub-population.

"It was a very intense fire and very fast-moving, so most of the animals didn't have a huge opportunity to move out of its path," she says.

Dr Bain took part in a quokka survey by the World Wildlife Fund Australia and WA Department of Parks and Wildlife from February to June this year.

The aim was to assess the fire's impact on the vulnerable small wallaby species, which many West Australians may be surprised to learn live on the mainland.

Quokkas exist in small, scattered sub-populations from Serpentine to the South Coast, including a second offshore group on Bald Island near Albany.

The fire-affected Northcliffe sub-population is part of the Southern Forests population, between Nannup and Denmark.

These marsupials are vital to the species' genetic diversity, according to Dr Bain.

"It's the most robust mainland population and… very, very important from a genetics perspective," she says.

"When you look at the animals on Rottnest Island, it's a very poor, very small genetic pool with a fairly low level of diversity in terms of the DNA.

"[Southern Forests] is a much, much larger genetic pool and the diversity of DNA is through the roof in comparison."

Dr Bain says protecting the surviving quokkas, which are restricted to small pockets of bushland and vulnerable to cats and foxes, is crucial but will be a challenge.

"The animals in those refuge patches have to survive long enough for the surrounding habitat to regenerate to a point where they can move through the landscape and recolonise some of the habitat further in," she says.

It is too early to tell if the unburned bushland will be able to support the surviving quokkas for long enough to rebuild their post-fire numbers, according to Dr Bain.

"We think between four to six years is how long it's likely to take before the habitat is able to support the population again."

WWF plan to use surveys, remote sensor cameras and radio tracking collars to monitor the quokkas re-colonisation patterns, while the department is responsible for fire management and predator control.

The findings were published by World Wildlife Fund Australia in September.

Explore further: Breakthrough in southern quokka conservation

More information: The report is available online: … ort_sept_2016_1_.pdf

Related Stories

Breakthrough in southern quokka conservation

November 13, 2015

Quokkas (Setonix brachyurus) in the southern forests between Nannup and Denmark are partial to different habitats to their cousins in the northern jarrah forests, highlighting the need for tailored conservation techniques ...

Mapping the future of Rottnest's furry friends

April 9, 2015

We all know Rottnest Island's iconic quokkas (Setonix brachyurus) love eating treats from tourists and poking around inside public buildings but local researchers have identified plant species on the island that the quokkas ...

Image: Bushfire in Southwestern Australia

February 2, 2015

On February 1, 2015, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite acquired this image of a large bushfire burning near the town of Northcliffe in Western Australia.

South-west bushfire turns up new flora

January 18, 2016

Biodiversity has flourished amid the devastation left by a bushfire that tore through a section of the south-west last year, with an Albany botanist discovering a plant species in the region.

Team studies fires this year in '88 Yellowstone burn areas

September 5, 2016

Nearly three decades ago, huge wildfires burned about a third of Yellowstone National Park. The park has seen wildfires every year since, but the forests of new trees that grew in the scars of those 1988 fires have helped ...

Recommended for you

NASA's Mars 2020 rover is put to the test

March 20, 2019

In a little more than seven minutes in the early afternoon of Feb. 18, 2021, NASA's Mars 2020 rover will execute about 27,000 actions and calculations as it speeds through the hazardous transition from the edge of space to ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.