The real rat race
11 August 2011
Sydneysiders sometimes feel swept up in the rat race, but there's a real rat race coming to bushland around Sydney Harbour when University of Sydney ecologists introduce native bush rats, called boguls.
The trial starting this week will take place in 16 bushland locations from Mosman to Manly, with the aim of reinstating a native species and potentially reducing pest black rat populations as the boguls compete for territory and resources. The boguls will be microchipped and radio tracked to chart their movements over the next 18 months.
Native boguls (Rattus fuscipes) were once common in Sydney but were wiped out after European settlement. Research led by Associate Professor Peter Banks and Dr Grainne Cleary from the University of Sydney's School of Biological Sciences suggests boguls may be able to out-compete black rats (Rattus rattus) in the race for territory.
"This reintroduction of boguls will be the first large scale trial to see how well they can compete against pest black rats. We will give the true blue bogul back its residence advantage by reducing black rat numbers, but that is all we can do - the rest is up to our little Aussie battler bogul to fight for its traditional territory," said Dr Grainne Cleary.
"We're keen to see whether the bogul is in fact able to out-compete the black rat," explained Associate Professor Banks. "We'll be releasing 100 boguls, caught from outer Sydney bushland, into our National Park and Sydney Harbour Federation Trust test sites."
So how can Sydney residents, especially those in the Mosman and Manly areas, tell the difference between their new bogul neighbours and the pest black rat?
"The most obvious difference is the tail length: pest black rat tails are much longer than their bodies, whereas bogul tails are the same length as their bodies or even shorter," said Dr Cleary.
Despite the name, black rats aren't black but are similar grey colour to boguls. "We hope local residents will take a close look to identify boguls and help keep them safe," Dr Cleary said.
"It would be great if Mosman and Manly area residents could help by keeping cats indoors overnight, to give our native boguls the best chance at success. There's no need for residents to fear boguls invading their homes: the native bush rats do as their name suggests - they stay in the bush."
Mosman residents have been trying to tell the difference between boguls and pest black rats since the 1800s, said Associate Professor Banks. "We found a research paper from 1897 written by a zoologist at the Australian Museum about his encounter in his Mosman house with what he thought were native boguls. Unfortunately, it turns out they were looking at black rats - as noted at the end of the paper by another Fellow of the Zoological Society of London."
Research by one of Associate Professor Peter Banks' previous PhD students on bogul populations in bushland in Jervis Bay indicated that when black rat numbers were reduced boguls moved in from adjacent areas and established populations. Five years later boguls had maintained strong populations, while black rat numbers remained very low.
"We're keen to see whether the bogul is in fact able to out-compete the black rat, as suggested by the Jervis Bay research and another joint pilot study we conducted with Taronga Zoo in a natural bushland enclosure at the Zoo in 2010," explained Associate Professor Banks.
Taronga Zoo's Education Centre staff are involving local students and schools in the research project and working to raise community awareness, and support for, the native boguls.
National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS) Area Manager for Harbour North, Peter Hay, said the NPWS is hoping this trial could lead to further reintroductions of native animals to the Sydney Harbour National Park.
"NPWS is delighted to support the University of Sydney's trial reintroduction of the bogul into Sydney Harbour National Park. The task of conserving national parks and reserves for future generations is particularly challenging in urban settings such as Sydney Harbour," Mr Hay said.
"To date, most natural heritage restoration programs have focused on the ecosystem scale, through measures such as bush regeneration or wide scale pest control. It is really exciting to support a project that looks to the next level in environmental restoration."
Associate Professor Banks described the trial as fantastic opportunity to improve the area's ecosystem, and possibly see the return of other native species such as bandicoots and gliders.
The project is led by the University of Sydney team and supported by Taronga Zoo, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Mosman Council, Australian Wildlife Conservancy and pest control company Rentokil.
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