Context. Climate change is having significant impacts on species worldwide. The endangered eastern quoll (Dasyurus viverrinus) has recently undergone rapid and severe population decline, with no sign of recovery. Spatially and temporally-explicit weather modelling suggests a prolonged period of unfavourable weather conditions during 2001–03 as the proximate cause of decline. However, the mechanisms of this weather-induced decline are not currently understood.
Aims. The aim of this study was to investigate the hypothesis that changing weather conditions have altered the availability of key prey species, potentially contributing to the species’ decline.
Methods. We analysed 229 scats collected from 125 individual wild quolls across four sites between July 2011 and May 2012. Variation in dietary composition and niche breadth was compared across sites and seasons. We also compared contemporary dietary composition and niche breadth to historic dietary studies performed before the species’ decline, to identify any key changes in dietary composition over time.
Key results. Dietary composition and niche breadth were similar across sites but differed between seasons. Dietary niche contracted during winter (July) and early spring (September) when insect larvae formed the bulk of quoll diet, rendering the species vulnerable to weather-related fluctuations in food availability at that time. Large differences were also evident between current and historic dietary composition, with a marked shift from insect larvae to mammals, predominantly due to a reduction in corbie (Oncopera intricata) and southern armyworm (Persectania ewingii) moth larvae. Quoll abundance appears positively related to corbie larva abundance during winter, and both quoll and corbie larva abundance appear negatively related to winter rainfall.
Conclusions. The lower contribution of insects at sites with low quoll densities suggests that insects represent an important food item for eastern quolls during winter, when dietary niche is narrowest and energy demands are highest. Our findings suggest that weather-induced fluctuations in quoll abundance, including the significant statewide decline during 2001–03, are potentially driven by weather-induced fluctuations in corbie larva abundance.
Implications. Continued deterioration in climatic suitability with recent and predicted climate change could further threaten eastern quolls through reductions in the availability and stability of reliable food sources at critical life-history stages when dietary options are already limited.