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Australia's Furry Quoll Gets 'Toad-Smart' to Survive

Scientists are training an endangered marsupial to avoid eating toxic toads.

Scientists are training an endangered furry marsupial - Australia's beloved quoll - to avoid eating toxic toads that have devastated predator populations in a novel attempt to save native fauna.

Carnivorous quolls, commonly known as the native cat, are under attack from the poisonous cane toad, an invasive species from Central and South America.

The toads were introduced to Australia in 1935 but are so poisonous they can kill predators that try to eat them.

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Numbering more than 200 million, the invasive species continue to spread across northern Australia at an estimated 40-60 kilometres (25-37 miles) a year, leaving a trail of catastrophic population declines in native predators.

Now a government-funded project has been set up to train "toad-smart" northern quolls to avoid eating the poisonous toads and help re-establish a population of the marsupials in Kakadu. Quolls are also under threat from feral cats.

Up to 30 trained quolls will be released in the wilds of southern Kakadu's Mary River district this year as part of a three-year plan.

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Quolls are exposed to food containing toad skins and nauseous chemicals which they gradually learn to avoid.

A successful experimental programme from 2010 showed that the toad-smart females not only survived and reproduced but that new generations learnt to avoid eating the toads from them, resulting in a five-fold increase in local quoll numbers.

"It is fantastic to see the success of this innovative programme to protect Australia's small mammals," said Environment Minister Greg Hunt on Thursday.

"This is extremely important work. Without focused conservation initiatives such as this it would be unlikely the species would recover for the foreseeable future."

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Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews said the project was part of a Aus$750,000 (US$585,000) investment strategy to make Kakadu safe again for native animals and plants.

"Quolls are an iconic carnivorous Australian marsupial and an incredibly important part of our ecosystem," he said.

"By teaching the quolls not to eat cane toads and making Kakadu safe for them from feral cats, we can ensure their survival in this important world heritage-listed area."

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National Parks director Sally Barnes said the research had shown that each generation of quolls would learn to avoid cane toads.

"We are thinking this will only need to be done once to protect quoll populations from cane toads as each generation learns to avoid them," she said.

"The Kakadu research shows us that ‘toad-smart' quolls can be reintroduced after a cane toad invasion."

Recently an urgent message went out to animal lovers: An animal rescue organization in Australia needed as many cotton mittens as people could make or donate. Recent bushfires in the country were harming slow-moving koalas, burning their paws, and animals being cared for after the fires needed all the spare dressings they could get. In honor of the ordeal faced by these lovable, takin'-it-easy creatures, we thought a gallery of their sheer adorableness was in order.

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These cute Australians eat the leaves of the eucalyptus tree -- almost exclusively.

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The leaves aren't terribly energizing, so koalas can sleep for about 20 hours per day.

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Koala moms give birth to a single youngster, after a roughly month-long gestation period. The youngins need about 9 months to grow into their adult fur color and remain clingy during this time.

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Sometimes baby koalas need a helping hand from those strange bipeds that seem to adore them.

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Koalas have sharp claws that make them good climbers. The better to be able to hug trees and hang out in them sleeping and eating.

They motor around on all fours when on the ground.

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A koala's belly fur can reflect solar radiation.

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Its thick back fur, meanwhile, has excellent insulating properties, helping the creature in windy or rainy conditions. (Koalas in the northern region, however, have shorter fur.) The color and pattern of the coat will vary between individuals and will change with age.

By about 9 months old, young koalas have permanently left mom's pouch but still need to get around by clinging to her back. By about 12 months, though, they'll be fully weaned.

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