A device targeting feral cats could help claw back native animal numbers

  Last updated June 25, 2020 at 11:22 am

Topics:  

The Felixer, an autonomous device that can target and cull feral cats in the wild, could be key in rebuilding Australia’s decimated native animal populations.


feral cat australia

A feral cat in outback Australia. Credit: Threatened Species Recovery Hub of the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme




Why This Matters: Feral cats have devastating impacts on native wildlife.




A new device that uses poison and lasers to kill feral cats and control their devastating impacts on population numbers of native species has been successfully trialled in South Australia.


In a study published in the nature journal Wildlife Research, ecologists from UNSW Sydney report on a trial of the Felixer – an autonomous device placed in remote areas that can identify and kill feral cats while easily distinguishing them from other non-target animals.


The researchers found that in just six weeks of testing, 20 Felixer devices scattered about a 2600-ha fenced paddock in South Australia eliminated two thirds – or 33 cats – of the local feral cat population.


Lead researcher Dr Katherine Moseby says while cats are deservedly treasured as household pets, their impact upon native animal populations has been lethal – which she has witnessed firsthand.




Also: Feral cats kill over a million reptiles a day in Australia




Conservation efforts has been thwarted by feral cats


Moseby has spent the past couple of decades trying to bolster the dwindling numbers of native species such as bilbies, burrowing bettongs, western quolls, stick nest rats and western barred bandicoots.


western quolls_feral cats_native species

Western quolls are some of the native species that are preyed upon by feral cats. Credit: UNSW


But attempts to reintroduce them back into their natural habitats have been thwarted by feral animals, especially cats and foxes. It has been very common for repatriated animals to become once again, completely wiped from an area, Moseby says.


She recalls one time after a release of bilbies into the wild outside the Arid Recovery Reserve in South Australia that was particularly galling.


“We released the bilbies, and literally within only a few days, I was radio tracking one of the females that had a pouch young, and I found her dead under a bush where it had been killed by a cat. The pouch young was still alive and was dying,” Moseby says.


“When you see these beautiful, threatened native species, just time and time again being ripped apart by cats and foxes, you realise that although cats are really amazing animals, they don’t belong in the wild. And they’re really causing huge impacts to our threatened species.”


She says the impact of feral cats has become such a problem that releasing threatened species back into the wild is usually only successful if it occurs in fenced-off sanctuaries or on offshore islands.




Also: Huge feral-free save haven to be home for missing native desert animals




“I’ve been doing reintroductions of threatened species for 20 years and almost every reintroduction attempt that you do in the wild fails due to cat or fox predation,” says Moseby.


“Most of the reintroductions that happen now in Australia happen on islands or fenced reserves where they’ve eradicated all the feral animals. So we don’t do very many reintroductions now into open landscapes because of the threat of cats and foxes.”


Baiting can be harmful to the animals it’s trying to protect


What makes eradication of feral cats so difficult is that they don’t take baits as readily as other feral animals like foxes and rabbits. Cats in the wild prefer to live off prey they have hunted and killed. Another problem with baiting is that it has the potential to harm the animals it is there to protect.


the felixer_feral cats_feral cat trap

The Felixer is about 50cm high by 50cm deep and can be left in remote areas to eliminate feral cats. Picture: UNSW


A Felixer set up in a remote environment gets around both of these problems. First, it can easily distinguish cats from other animals with great efficiency – at a rate of 100 per cent in the most recent study. This means the poison it administers – in the form of a gel sprayed onto the fur of a passing cat – does not inadvertently harm other native animals. And because the poison is ingested by cats as they compulsively groom themselves, it gets around the problem of baits going uneaten.


“All the cats that we were aware of that passed in front of a Felixer during the trial and got squirted – they all died,” Moseby says. “And the ones that didn’t die were the ones that didn’t go in front of the Felixer. So if we’d left the traps there longer, we could have potentially eradicated cats from the area.”


How the Felixer works


The Felixer is a box the size of a storage crate that is equipped with an infrared camera, four laser sensors and 20 poison canisters. Only when lasers are tripped in a particular way does it register the presence of a cat and fires poison gel.


“The laser sensors are set in a configuration that can detect a cat walking past,” Moseby says.


feral cats_australian wildlife_the felixer

The Felixer can determine whether a feral cat or native animal animal passes by according to which of the laser sensors it triggers. Credit; UNSW


“A cat will trigger the two middle sensors and not trigger the top and bottom sensor. And it also knows the timing of the cat’s walk so it can detect that a cat is walking past at a normal cat speed. So it’s the pattern in which the sensors are broken and the timing of that pattern that leads the Felixer to determine that ‘well, this must be a cat’, and it fires a gel out through a hole in the side that squirts onto the cat’s flank. The cats goes away and licks its fur and ingests the poison that way.”



The poison used in the six week trial was 1080, based on a compound that emulates toxins found in plants like gastrolobiums common to Western Australia. Moseby says it works by shutting down the Krebs cycle in the animal’s metabolism. Because the Felixer’s delivery of it is so targeted, its doses can be set much higher than in baits and death can occur quicker, sometimes within two hours of ingestion, Moseby says.


“One advantage the Felixer brings is that any toxin can be used in the gel,” she says. “We used 1080 because cats are very sensitive to it compared to native animals but you could also use PAPP which is a new poison that basically euthanises animals by putting them to sleep.”


The next steps for the Felixer


University of Adelaide’s Dr John Read, a co-author on the paper and original inventor of the Felixer, says the device is still in trial stage and so quite expensive, with each unit costing about $15,000 to manufacture. He says the next step for the developers is testing its use in many different habitats and environmental conditions. For now, he says its use would be best suited to areas that were confined.


“We think that one of the most effective uses will be to eradicate cats from islands where you’ve got colonies of seabirds, or small mainland colonies of threatened species that are really susceptible to cat and fox predation,” he says.




Dingoes keep feral cats under control


Eastern Quolls have a tough time on first release back on the mainland




About the Author

UNSW Newsroom
The latest and best news from the University of New South Wales.

Published By

Featured Videos

Placeholder
Big Questions: Cancer
Placeholder
A future of nanobots in 180 seconds
Placeholder
Multi-user VR opens new worlds for medical research
Placeholder
Precision atom qubits achieve major quantum computing milestone
Placeholder
World's first complete design of a silicon quantum computer chip
Placeholder
Micro-factories - turning the world's waste burden into economic opportunities
Placeholder
Flip-flop qubits: a whole new quantum computing architecture
Placeholder
Ancient Babylonian tablet - world's first trig table
Placeholder
Life on Earth - and Mars?
Placeholder
“Desirable defects: Nano-scale structures of piezoelectrics” – Patrick Tung
Placeholder
Keeping Your Phone Safe from Hackers
Placeholder
Thru Fuze - a revolution in chronic back pain treatment (2015)
Placeholder
Breakthrough for stem cell therapies (2016)
Placeholder
The fortune contained in your mobile phone
Placeholder
Underwater With Emma Johnston
Placeholder
Flip-flop qubits: a whole new quantum computing architecture
Placeholder
The “Dressed Qubit” - breakthrough in quantum state stability (2016)
Placeholder
Pinpointing qubits in a silicon quantum computer (2016)
Placeholder
How to build a quantum computer in silicon (2015)
Placeholder
Quantum computer coding in silicon now possible (2015)
Placeholder
Crucial hurdle overcome for quantum computing (2015)
Placeholder
New world record for silicon quantum computing (2014)
Placeholder
Quantum data at the atom's heart (2013)
Placeholder
Towards a quantum internet (2013)
Placeholder
Single-atom transistor (2012)
Placeholder
Down to the Wire (2012)
Placeholder
Landmark in quantum computing (2012)
Placeholder
1. How Quantum Computers Will Change Our World
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts – What will a quantum computer do?
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts – Quantum Hardware
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts – Quantum Algorithms
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts – Quantum Logic
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts – Entanglement
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts - Quantum Measurement
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts – Spin
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts - Quantum Bits
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts - Binary Logic
Placeholder
Rose Amal - Sustainable fuels from the Sun
Placeholder
Veena Sahajwalla - The E-Waste Alchemist
Placeholder
Katharina Gaus - Extreme Close-up on Immunity
Placeholder
In her element - Professor Emma Johnston
Placeholder
Martina Stenzel - Targeting Tumours with Tiny Assassins
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Why are we all athletes?
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Megafauna murder mystery
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Why are we so hairy?
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Why grannies matter
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Why do only humans experience puberty?
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Evolution of the backside
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Why we use symbols
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Evolutionary MasterChefs
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - The Paleo Diet fad
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Are races real?
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Are We Still Evolving?
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Dangly Bits
Placeholder
Catastrophic Science: Climate Migrants
Placeholder
Catastrophic Science: De-Extinction
Placeholder
Catastrophic Science: Nuclear Disasters
Placeholder
Catastrophic Science: Storm Surges
Placeholder
Catastrophic Science: How the Japan tsunami changed science
Placeholder
Catastrophic Science: How the World Trade Centre collapsed
Placeholder
Catastrophic Science: Bushfires