Training fails to elicit behavioral change in a marsupial suffering evolutionary loss of antipredator behaviors

Oxford University Press (OUP)
Publication Type:
Journal Article
Journal of Mammalogy, 2020, 101, (4), pp. 1108-1116
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© The Author(s) 2020. Attempts to reintroduce threatened species from ex situ populations (zoos or predator-free sanctuaries) regularly fail because of predation. When removed from their natural predators, animals may lose their ability to recognize predators and thus fail to adopt appropriate antipredator behaviors. Recently, northern quolls (Dasyurus hallucatus; Dasyuromorpha: Dasyuridae) conserved on a predator-free "island ark"for 13 generations were found to have no recognition of dingoes, a natural predator with which they had coevolved on mainland Australia for about 8,000 years. A subsequent reintroduction attempt using quolls acquired from this island ark failed due to predation by dingoes. In this study, we tested whether instrumental conditioning could be used to improve predator recognition in captive quolls sourced from a predator-free "island ark."We used a previously successful scent-recognition assay (a giving-up density experiment) to compare predator-scent recognition of captive-born island animals before and after antipredator training. Our training was delivered by pairing live predators (dingo and domestic dog) with an electrified cage floor in repeat trials such that, when the predators were present, foraging animals would receive a shock. Our training methodology did not result in any discernible change in the ability of quolls to recognize and avoid dingo scent after training. We conclude either that our particular training method was ineffective (though ethically permissible); or that because these quolls appear unable to recognize natural predators, predator recognition may be extremely difficult to impart in a captive setting given ethical constraints. Our results point to the difficulty of reinstating lost behaviors, and to the value of maintaining antipredator behaviors in conservation populations before they are lost.
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