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Recovery of the numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus)

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James A Friend
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The numbat has been reduced to two populations in Western Australia. To better understand the effects of range reduction on gene flow and genetic variation, and to address questions crucial for the species' management, we analysed mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences of free-ranging individuals and museum specimens. The results suggest recent connectivity between the remnant populations, although one of those may have lost significant amounts of genetic diversity during the recent population size reduction. We propose that for management purposes the remnant populations should be treated as a single historical lineage and that, subject to certain caveats, consideration should be given to population augmentation by translocation.
Numbats originally occurred across much of the southern half of Australia. This distribution began to contract during the mid-1800s, but the most rapid phase of extinction took place in the arid zone during the 1940s and 1950s. The timing of this crash coincided with the establishment of the introduced red fox Vulpes vulpes in the region. Today numbat populations are limited to a few areas of forest and woodland in SW Australia. Even these passed through a period of decline during the 1970s, and the species disappeared from several isolated habitat remnants. At Dryandra Forest, the pattern of the decline and subsequent recovery of the numbat population did not suggest that the decline was due solely to low rainfall between 1975-1979 or to any increase in the frequency of prescribed burning. Selective poisoning of foxes since 1983 has been followed by a substantial increase in numbat numbers and the higher population levels have been maintained despite further years of low rainfall from 1984-1987. Re-establishment of populations in areas in which numbats formerly occurred began in 1985. Animals from Dryandra Forest and from a captive breeding colony have been used to re-stock Boyagin Nature Reserve, where the species became extinct in the 1970s. Fox control has been carried out continuously since the introductions. Breeding of numbats and establishment of their young have occurred each year. Indications are that the new population is viable. The potential now exists for translocations to further sites. -from Author