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Saved by Selfies?

Tourists flock to an Australian island to take photos with adorable animals called quokkas. Are they helping or hurting the wildlife?

CAMPBELL JONES

LOOK FAST: A quokka jumps toward a visitor’s camera.

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: Can social media alter people’s interactions with wildlife?

A few years ago, visitors to the tiny Australian island of Rottnest began snapping selfies alongside some of the island’s locals—small furry animals called quokkas (KWAH-kuhz). Images of people posing with the cuddly, happy-looking creatures quickly went viral. That sparked a quokka photo craze and a boost in tourism on Rottnest.

Rottnest Island has long been a popular vacation spot. Each year, more than half a million people visit the island to bask on its beaches and dive in the surrounding waters. Tourism often brings new development that can destroy animals’ habitats and spell trouble for native species. Around the world, many animals are kept in inhumane conditions so that tourists can interact with them.

Quokkas roam Rottnest freely and are protected by law, but scientists still worry about tourism’s effects on the animals, which are already considered vulnerable, or likely to become endangered. Local scientists have been studying the issue, and so far, it seems the critters might actually benefit from the crowds. But researchers wonder what will happen as more tourists travel to the island in the hope of capturing their own quokka selfies.

Small furry animals called quokkas (KWAH-kuhz) live on the tiny Australian island of Rottnest. A few years ago, visitors began snapping selfies with the cuddly, happy-looking creatures. The images quickly went viral. That sparked a quokka-photo craze and a rise in tourism on Rottnest.

Rottnest Island has long been a popular vacation spot. More than half a million people visit it each year. They bask on its beaches and dive in the waters around it. Tourism often brings new development. This can destroy animals’ habitats and spell trouble for native species. Around the world, many animals are kept in cruel conditions so tourists can spend time with them.

Quokkas roam Rottnest freely, and the law protects them. But scientists still worry about tourism’s effects on the animals. Quokkas are already listed as vulnerable. That means they’re likely to become endangered. Local scientists have been studying the question. So far, it seems the creatures might actually benefit from the crowds. But more tourists are traveling to the island in the hope of taking quokka selfies. Researchers wonder what will happen.

HARD TIMES FOR QUOKKAS

Quokkas are cat-sized relatives of kangaroos and wallabies. Like their larger cousins, quokkas are marsupials. These types of mammals carry their young in pouches (see Meet the Marsupials). Quokkas eat plants, get around by hopping, and are usually nocturnal, or active mainly at night.

Quokkas were once widespread on mainland Australia. But the arrival of Europeans starting in the 1830s brought significant changes that made life tough for quokkas. Settlement reduced the land available to quokkas by about 50 percent (see Shrinking Habitat).

Quokkas are cat-sized, but they’re related to kangaroos and wallabies. Like their larger relatives, quokkas are marsupials. These types of mammals carry their young in pouches (see Meet the Marsupials). Quokkas eat plants, get around by hopping, and are usually nocturnal. That means they’re active mostly at night.

Quokkas used to live across mainland Australia. Then Europeans started to arrive in the 1830s. This brought big changes that made life tough for quokkas. People settled on the land. The amount of land that quokkas could use dropped by about 50 percent (see Shrinking Habitat).

Another big change was the introduction of invasive predators from other parts of the world. Australia once had no cats. Sailors brought cats with them to keep rats under control on their ships and released many cats into the wild. Other settlers brought red foxes to the continent to be hunted for sport. The foxes multiplied and thrived. Foxes and cats hunted quokkas on the mainland until just a few small scattered groups remained. “They’ve been virtually annihilated,” says Veronica Phillips, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Western Australia.

On Rottnest Island, 18 kilometers (11 miles) off the coast, things are different. The island has no foxes or cats to kill its quokkas. As a result, it hosts the world’s largest remaining quokka population—about 8,000 animals. In fact, the island takes its name from its abundant quokkas: Rottnest is Dutch for “rat’s nest.” Early European visitors mistook the quokkas for giant rats. The animals’ image has come a long way since then.

People also brought invasive predators from other parts of the world. Australia once had no cats. Sailors brought cats with them to control rats on their ships. They released many cats into the wild. Other settlers brought red foxes to Australia to be hunted for sport. The foxes did well and grew in number. Foxes and cats hunted quokkas on the mainland. Finally, just a few small scattered groups were left. “They’ve been virtually annihilated,” says Veronica Phillips, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Western Australia.

Things are different on Rottnest Island. It lies 18 kilometers (11 miles) off the coast. The island has no foxes or cats to kill its quokkas. That’s why it has the largest group of quokkas left in the world, about 8,000 animals. In fact, the island’s name comes from its many quokkas. Rottnest is Dutch for “rat’s nest.” Early European visitors thought the quokkas were giant rats. The animals’ image has come a long way since then.

TOURIST HOT SPOT

Phillips recently examined how Rottnest Island’s quokkas are faring as development has grown. She studied the quokka population by trapping and releasing the animals. She gave each quokka that she trapped an ear tag and a microchip implant so it could be identified if it got caught again.

The study revealed several surprises. There are more quokkas per acre in areas of the island dominated by hotels, restaurants, and golf courses than in wild habitats like dunes and grasslands. Quokkas in developed areas had larger bodies and reproduced earlier in the year than those in wilder regions. And their babies, called joeys, were more likely to survive.

Development has grown on Rottnest Island. Lately, Phillips looked at how quokkas are doing there. She trapped and released quokkas to study their population. When she trapped each one, she gave it an ear tag and a microchip under its skin. If the quokka got caught again, she’d know which animal it was.

The study found some surprises. It looked at parts of the island with many hotels, restaurants, and golf courses. It compared them with wild habitats like dunes and grasslands. The developed areas had more quokkas per acre. Quokkas in developed areas had larger bodies and reproduced earlier in the year. And their babies, called joeys, were more likely to survive.

JOHN CRUX PHOTOGRAPHY/MOMENT RF/GETTY IMAGES

WATCH OUT! Touching quokkas is illegal, but sometimes the animals can’t contain their enthusiasm.

Quokkas also behaved differently in tourist-filled areas: They were usually more active during the day, particularly around the times people dine and were likely to drop bits of food. Feeding quokkas is illegal because the foods people eat can be unhealthy for them, but the animals still manage to scavenge scraps.

The effects of tourism on quokkas probably aren’t all good, though. Phillips is concerned about the animals’ health from eating food that’s not part of their natural diet, though this hasn’t been studied yet. And the long-term effects of their habitat shifts and altered behavior aren’t yet well understood. Also, denser populations of quokkas tend to lead to more fighting for mates, which can result in injuries.

For now, it’s hard to say whether tourism will help or hurt quokkas in the long run, says Phillips. “When we started our study, I was expecting it might be bad. But it turned out they might benefit overall,” she says.

Quokkas also acted differently in tourist-filled areas. They were usually more active during the day, especially around the times people eat. That’s when people might drop bits of food. Feeding quokkas is illegal for a reason. The foods people eat might be harmful to them. But the animals still find scraps.

The effects of tourism on quokkas probably aren’t all good. Phillips is worried about the animals’ health, because they’re eating food that’s not part of their natural diet. But this hasn’t been studied yet. Their habitat has shifted and behavior has changed. No one knows what the long-term effects of this will be. Also, more quokkas in an area leads to fighting for mates. That can cause injuries.

Will tourism help or hurt quokkas in the long run? For now, it’s hard to say, says Phillips. “When we started our study, I was expecting it might be bad. But it turned out they might benefit overall,” she says.

KEVIN SCHAFER/MINDEN PICTURES

BABY ON BOARD: A mother quokka with her joey

CHALLENGES AHEAD

While tourism may be helping Rottnest’s quokkas today, their mainland cousins face a big future danger: climate change. These quokkas rely on wetlands, where they feed on rich vegetation that grows in marshy areas. On the mainland, where predators are a concern, wetlands provide some of the best hiding spots. But climate change is threatening this habitat.

“Climate change is drying out this part of Australia and reducing the damp areas quokkas rely on,” says Merril Halley, regional species conservation manager for the World Wildlife Fund. A warmer, drier climate also leaves quokkas more susceptible to wildfires. In 2015, a huge fire on mainland Australia struck an area with more than 500 quokkas. It wiped out about 90 percent of them.

Halley and Phillips hope that the attention quokkas receive online will help promote conservation, both on Rottnest Island and on the mainland. “Ideally, increased awareness of quokkas on social media could help people understand the need to support our threatened species,” says Halley. “And that’s definitely a good thing.”

Tourism may be helping Rottnest’s quokkas today. But their mainland cousins face a big future danger: climate change. These quokkas depend on wetlands. They feed on rich vegetation that grows in these marshy areas. On the mainland, predators are a problem. Wetlands provide some of the best hiding spots. But climate change is threatening this habitat.

“Climate change is drying out this part of Australia and reducing the damp areas quokkas rely on,” says Merril Halley. She’s a regional species conservation manager for the World Wildlife Fund. A warmer, drier climate causes another problem for quokkas. It increases the danger from wildfires. In 2015, a huge fire on mainland Australia struck an area with more than 500 quokkas. It killed about 90 percent of them.

The attention quokkas get online could help. Halley and Phillips hope it will promote conservation, both on Rottnest Island and on the mainland. “Ideally, increased awareness of quokkas on social media could help people understand the need to support our threatened species,” says Halley. “And that’s definitely a good thing.”

CORE QUESTION: What are some of the pros and cons of social-media-fueled tourism for quokkas?

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