The Felixer, an autonomous device that can target and cull feral cats in thewild, could be key to rebuilding Australia’s decimated native animalpopulations.

Ecologists from UNSW Sydney have evaluated a promising new method to controlthe devastating toll feral cats have inflicted on population numbers ofAustralian native species.

In a study published today in the nature journal Wildlife Research, theauthors report on a trial of the Felixer – an autonomous device placed inremote areas that can identify and kill feral cats while easily distinguishingthem from other non-target animals. The researchers found that in just sixweeks of testing, 20 Felixer devices scattered about a 2600-ha fenced paddockin South Australia eliminated two thirds – or 33 cats – of the local feral catpopulation.

Lead researcher Dr Katherine Moseby with UNSW Science’s School of Biological,Earth and Environmental Sciences says while cats are deservedly treasured ashousehold pets, their impact upon native animal populations has been lethal –which she has witnessed firsthand.

Back to nature

As one of UNSW’s leading conservation scientists with a passion forAustralia’s arid desert fauna, Dr Moseby has spent the past couple of decadestrying to bolster the dwindling numbers of native species such as bilbies,burrowing bettongs, western quolls, stick nest rats and western barredbandicoots. But attempts to reintroduce them back into their natural habitatshave been thwarted by feral animals, especially cats and foxes. It has beenvery common for repatriated animals to become once again, completely wipedfrom an area, Dr Moseby says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild at heart

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

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 itadministers – 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 isingested by cats as they compulsively groom themselves, it gets around theproblem of baits going uneaten.

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

How it works

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

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

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

The poison used in the six week trial was 1080, based on a compound thatemulates toxins found in plants like gastrolobiums common to WesternAustralia. Dr Moseby says it works by shutting down the Krebs cycle in theanimal’s metabolism. Because the Felixer’s delivery of it is so targeted, itsdoses can be set much higher than in baits and death can occur quicker,sometimes within two hours of ingestion, Dr 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 tonative animals but you could also use PAPP which is a new poison thatbasically euthanises animals by putting them to sleep.”

Next steps

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

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

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