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An ecological murder mystery

Published 30 Jul 2019 by Allana Brown and Terry Mahney

Ecologist Allana Brown considers the mysterious story of five dismembered, fluffy tails.

Who did they belong to? How did they lose them? Who were the innocent victims? Who dunnit?!

(Disclaimer: This is a true crime story. The events are all true, but the conversations have been changed to fluff up the piece!)

The mystery started when I was with Olkola Ranger, Ashaley Ross and we were going about our usual business of habitat monitoring as part of the ‘Bringing Alwal Home’ partnership to save the endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot (or Alwal).

It was a typical dry-season morning, sunny and warm, and Ashaley and I were laying out measuring tape through the savannah woodland. It's one of the places we return to each year to measure tree and shrub densities to better understand how woody thickening is impacting Alwal’s breeding habitat, and how Olkola fire management is improving habitat condition.

However on this particular morning we unwittingly stumbled on a grizzly crime scene. Ashaley moved toward a large Eucalypt tree to measure its circumference. This old tree is nature's boarding house: full of hollows that provide refuge for a multitude of residents – owls, possums, gliders, parrots, geckos all call this place home. As Ashaley reached the base of the tree he looked down and gaves out a yell. I rushed over, and we were both shocked to see the remains of five victims lying on the ground.

Five fluffy tails were all that remained of a family of gliders that once made their home in the hollows of the majestic tree. As I reached down to touch one of the tails I recoiled. “Eeeewwwww! This one’s still fresh – it just wiggled in my hand!”

After our initial shock and horror, our well-honed mystery solving abilities began to kick in, and we started searching for clues and analysing the evidence.

Firstly we needed to identify the victims. Ashley observed that the tails were all very fluffy and the tip was dark coloured. They looked very much like a glider or possum, but which one?

“Only two glider species occur in this area," said Ashaley "the Sugar Glider and the Squirrel Glider. These tails are fluffy their whole length and have a dark tip, so looks like a Squirrel Glider's tail. A Sugar Glider's tail is fluffy toward the end and tapers toward the base. Sugar Gliders often have a white tip on their tail rather than a dark end. So the victims appear to be Squirrel Gliders.”

“Squirrel Gliders live together in family groups with five to six animals sharing a hollow for warmth and safety," he continued. "So we could be looking at the remains of a whole family!”

We continued our forensic examination of the remains and found the tails were in various stages of decay – some were several days old and the most recent possibly only a few hours. What sort of predator would gradually kill a family of gliders in a eucalypt woodland in central Cape York?  

Foxes are a threat to many mammals but they don’t occur this far north, I thought. It's unlikely to be dingoes as they can’t climb trees and gliders rarely come to the ground.

Feral cats are one of the greatest threats to our native wildlife and we know from our camera trapping that they've been preying on the endangered Alwal near here. But we decided a feral cat was unlikely as the hollow was high up and a cat was unlikely to climb such a tall tree.

It appeared as though the attacks came from a creature that sat patiently and quietly watching the glider family’s movements. It was probably something with good night vision that could silently seize its victims when they were most vulnerable – exiting and entering their home.

The perpetrator then seemingly brought its victims to the same perch each night to dismember and eat, dropping the tails to the ground below.

This appears to be the modus operandi of an owl – one large enough to take on a fully-grown Squrirel Glider.

We thought about the owls that occur in the area and ruled out smaller species such as Boobook, Barn and Barking Owls. However, we knew three large owls occur here on Olkola Country – the Rufous Owl, Sooty Owl and Masked Owl.

Sooty Owls are mostly found in rainforest gorges and gullies – none of which are nearby, ruling them out.

Rufous Owls are noted predators of large prey including possums and flying foxes so they could easily take a Squirrel Glider. They usually hang out in lowland rainforest and along well-vegetated creeklines but would venture out into eucalypt forest to hunt. So it could be them. However, Ashaley remembered back to some spotlightling work in the past where Masked Owls were recorded with a glider nearby on the same night.

This suggests our perpetrator is most likely a Masked Owl.

Having solved this murder mystery, we paused for a moment of quiet reflection on the cycle of life in the eucalypt woodlands of Cape York. While it's a brutal and sad end for the glider family, unlike the endangered Alwal, the Squirrel Glider's status is more secure and the owl was only doing what it needed to ensure its own survival. 

It's good to know that the work Olkola are doing to remove feral cats and undertake fire management for improved biodiversity outcomes is also supporting these other native species.

The Bringing Alwal Home Project is kindly supported by the Scully Fund. 

Allana Brown, Bush Heritage ecologist, and Ashaley Ross, Olkola Alwal Project Manager, detectives on the case. Allana Brown, Bush Heritage ecologist, and Ashaley Ross, Olkola Alwal Project Manager, detectives on the case.
These Sugar Gliders are very similar to but about half the length of Squirrel Gliders. Photo Steve Parish. These Sugar Gliders are very similar to but about half the length of Squirrel Gliders. Photo Steve Parish.
A Masked Owl, Tyto novaehollandiae, Vulnerable in Queensland. Photo credit to Beth Hollow, via Birdlife Australia.  A Masked Owl, Tyto novaehollandiae, Vulnerable in Queensland. Photo credit to Beth Hollow, via Birdlife Australia.
The grim discovery – five fluffy tails left behind. The grim discovery – five fluffy tails left behind.
Scene of the crime –Olkola’s vegetation monitoring transect where Ash and Allana made the grizzly discovery. Scene of the crime –Olkola’s vegetation monitoring transect where Ash and Allana made the grizzly discovery.

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