Bettong, Kerri Afford, Photographer
You wouldn't think human scientists would have to train wild animals to fear their predators, but they are, at least in southern Australia, where scientists are trying to save the country's Bettongs from extinction.
Bettongs, otherwise known as 'rat kangaroos,' are native to Australia, each species (two are already extinct) is native to a different terrain in the country. But the broadening of farming and industrial land has displaced the Bettongs and the introduction of the fox and of feral cats into wildlands in the 1800's has since nearly annihilated them. As the fox and wild cat increased in population, the Bettongs were being devoured, not having had enough historical time to develop fear behaviors which would be passed down generationally. (reference)
A study published in July, 2017, detailed one possible method of returning burrowing Bettongs to their native lands, although this effort will take many years, if effective. But this first experiment, conducted by scientists from the University of New South Wales, used 'predator exposure training' to induce fear in a test group of 352 burrowing Bettongs in an enclosed 26 square kilometer paddock. Also in that area were four neutered wild male cats. A control group of Bettongs were not exposed to any cats in their paddock.
The scientists observed the Bettongs in small groups over an 18 month period looking for 1) how soon they fled when approached, 2) their behavior in traps; and 3) how vigilant they were at feed trays.
Two Bettongs, Photo by Kirstin Proft, a PhD candidate studying bettongs in the Australian Midlands
"Previous attempts to train animals to avoid predators have been carried out in laboratories or in captivity, with animals exposed to images, models or real predators. But these approaches rarely improve survival," says study first author and UNSW scientist Dr Rebecca West.
It's hard to believe that animal images might instill fear in an animal like the Bettong, but as Dr. West indicates, they were not successful.
The results of real exposure to feline predators were successful, however. If this research and training is continued, in several generations, with parent training and genetic rewiring, the Bettong might be restored to their natural habitats.
This short video of the test Bettongs is very interesting....
In May 2017 fifteen staff and volunteers spent four nights trapping Burrowing Bettongs at Arid Recovery.
There are concurrent efforts to reduce the population of foxes and feral cats in the wildlands of Australia, but I understand that feral cats cover 99.8 percent of Australia's land, so reducing the population humanely, as Australians would do, is not going to be easy.