Unexpectedly high densities of feral cats in a rugged temperate forest

Date: 30, Oct, 2019
Author(s):   Rees, M.W., Pascoe, J.H., Wintle, B.A., Le Pla, M., Birnbaum, E.K., Hradsky, B.A.
Publisher: Biological Conservation

Effective invasive predator management requires accurate knowledge of population density. However, density can be difficult to estimate for wide-ranging, cryptic and trap-shy species, such as the feral cat Felis catus. Consequently, few density estimates exist for this invasive predator of global significance, particularly from rugged, mesic or structurally complex habitats where detection is challenging. In this study, we estimated feral cat density in the wet forests and cool temperate rainforests of the Otway Ranges, south-eastern Australia, to (1) provide a density estimate for this rarely surveyed habitat type, and (2) verify predictions from a continental-scale model of feral cat density. We deployed 140 camera traps across two independent 49 km2 grids and identified individual feral cats based on unique pelage markings. Using spatially explicit mark-resight models, we estimated that there were 1.14 cats km−2 (95% CI: 0.89–1.47). This is more than three times the average cat density in natural environments across Australia, and at least five times higher than model-based predictions for the Otway Ranges. Such high densities of feral cats likely reflect the abundance of small native mammals and lack of apex predators in our study area. Our findings contradict the widespread assumption that feral cats occur at very low densities in mesic and rugged habitats. Underestimating the density of feral cats in these environments has significant implications for pest animal management and biodiversity conservation.