Northern quoll: a ferocious predator with a peculiar breeding strategy

Name(s): Northern quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus)

Size: The smallest of the four Australian quoll species. Body length 25-37cm, weight up to 1.2kg.

Diet: Opportunistic omnivore (which means almost everything, including insects, small rodents, fruit and carrion).

Habitat: Isolated mainland and island populations in northern Queensland, the Northern Territory as well as the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of Western Australia.

Conservation status: Endangered

Superpower: Super strength! Female northern quolls can carry around up to EIGHT young in their pouch and on their back while traversing rugged country.

Northern quoll
Northern quoll. Credit: Henry Cook/Getty Images

If Sir David Attenborough lists you as one of the 10 species that he would take on his own personal ark to save from extinction, then you must be a pretty special animal! In fact, the northern quoll is a very special animal which exists across northern Australia, in Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia. The northern quoll used to occupy the entire northern third of the continent, but due to many threats, they have been restricted to several isolated populations. Across their range, northern quolls occupy an important niche as a mesopredator, eating everything from small rodents, reptiles, and invertebrates, to fruit like native figs!

Northern quolls are very cute, with a soft, light-brown coat, covered in vivid white spots. However, don’t let that fool you! These critters are perfectly adapted to some of the most extreme and rugged environments that Australia has to offer—with temperatures in parts of their range reaching 50℃. To handle these extreme temperatures, northern quolls are nocturnal and usually hunt and forage at night. During the day, they rest inside rocky crevices, tree hollows, burrows and termite mounds.

Female northern quoll carrying babies on her back
All aboard! A female northern quoll carrying some of her babies on her back. How many can you count? Credit: Mitch Cowan

Northern quolls have razor sharp teeth and grippy feet with sharp claws that allow them to climb vertical surfaces like trees and rocky cliffs, as well as to hunt their prey. They can also travel enormous distances, with males travelling up to 14km in a single night,– a huge distance for a small animal.

That’s not the only fascinating thing about northern quolls. They are also the largest mammal with a semelparous life history. In simple terms, this means that male northern quolls only live for one year and generally die off after their first (and usually last) breeding season. During the breeding season, male northern quolls run huge distances and breed with multiple female northern quolls to try and pass on their genes. By the end of this ordeal, their body begins to break down and eventually they begin to die off. You could say they live a real rock ’n’ roll lifestyle!

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Female northern quolls, like some other mammals, can have multiple young with different fathers in the same litter—this helps to keep the genetic pool strong for future generations. What makes northern quolls stand out from the rest, however, is that their young often have little to no competition from large males due to the mass die-off after breeding season. This increases the chances of young northern quolls surviving to adulthood. Female northern quolls care for their babies until they are big enough to leave the den and fend for themselves.

Northern quolls are threatened across their range by invasive species such as feral cats and foxes which hunt them, as well as cane toads which poison northern quolls that eat them. However, with our help and your vote, northern quolls can continue to rule the night in northern Australia, hunting and climbing for many years to come!

Eight northern quoll babies developing in their mother’s pouch
Eight northern quoll babies developing in their mother’s pouch. Credit: Judy Dunlop

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