Image for The fox that wasn’t there?

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away

Antigonish – Hughes Mearns

And this is what it is all about.  A fox DNA gel produced by Dr Maxine Piggott when she first developed and tested the scat-DNA technique for foxes at Monash University.  It shows that DNA extracted from a known fox’s tissue (T) is the same as the DNA extracted from one of its scats (S) in three replications (Photo credit: Maxine Piggott).

When Winston Churchill spoke of a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” he may well have been describing the Tasmanian fox incursion.

More than a decade after the reported introduction of foxes to Tasmania many people believe that foxes are established, yet others believe that a breeding population does not exist and never has.  The elephant in the living room is that a number of things don’t seem to add up and the living room floor is about to collapse if we ignore these things for much longer.

If a scientist should get a tattoo it would be one borrowed from that Gershwin song that reminds us that “it ain´t necessarily so” as they should be extremely uneasy about conclusions based on a conga line of assumptions and ignored questions. Healthy skepticism, even for the skeptics and particularly the “experts” should be de rigueur as should a deep suspicion of data that have escaped independent review and conclusions orphaned from facts.

Irrefutable evidence is just that – evidence that no one can argue about.

The standard for irrefutable evidence is high and must be if we are to distinguish belief from knowledge. If you believe foxes abound in Tasmania, you are actually stating something quite different from saying you know it for a fact.  Equally, when we state that there is evidence that foxes have been introduced to Tasmania, this is not the same as saying that a population of foxes is established.  Failure to grasp these simple concepts has been the hallmark of much futile debate that has characterised the Tasmanian fox issue. 

While we should never glibly dismiss what people report seeing, even a vast collection of over 2000 Tasmanian fox sightings and inconclusive physical evidence will always be inferior to a single piece of irrefutable evidence.

Witness testimonials are not and never will be considered scientific data, and science would not work if they were.  If this was different, the existence of alien spacecraft would have been “scientifically proven” many years ago.  Thousands of perfectly reliable people have claimed to see a thylacine or mythical animals such as a yeti or chupacabra, but it is notoriously easy to misidentify animals. Wildlife scientists know about observer error and the question is never if it exists, but how much it affects your observations and conclusions.  If we are willing to use sightings alone as proof of the distribution of foxes in Tasmania, we must also be willing to conclude that thylacines (Tasmanian tigers) abound in Tasmania and even mainland Australia (where one private research group claims 3,800 sightings). Take a look at the map of some 360 post-extinction sightings of thylacines recorded in Tasmania that does not even include those for perhaps the last ten years (HERE).  Keep in mind too, that unlike the Tasmanian fox sightings, reports of thylacines were not solicited by a large media campaign requesting people’s help.  Scientists still demand irrefutable evidence for the existence of thylacines to challenge the current position that they are most likely extinct.  This is the way science requires it to be.  Sightings can only indicate the need for better evidence; alone they are not irrefutable proof.

But let’s take the current sighting and physical evidence data on the distribution of foxes in Tasmania on face value.  What might we conclude if we are uncritical of the quality of these data and equally uncritical of the assumptions that underpin them?

Firstly, if the real distribution of foxes in Tasmania even approximates the many current sightings or the map of the physical evidence alone (HERE),  then it will be impossible to eradicate them.  It is nonsensical that a population that is apparently so widely dispersed is composed of only a few foxes that have traversed Tasmania north and south and a good bit of east and west.  There’s no comfort to be found in any scientific studies to suggest that the remotest chance exists for eradicating foxes under these conditions, especially if foxes keep popping up in unexpected locations like vulpine mushrooms. There is no precedent for the eradication of foxes using the chosen baiting method; it is unproven for this purpose, especially over large areas. This is clear from scientific studies that show that even when specific fox habitat is surface baited with 8 of these baits per hectare (a totally impractical and ill advised density of baits in forest habitats) some foxes don’t eat them (HERE).  Foxes can take these baits and then re-bury them (HERE) or simply show no interest in bait stations (HERE).  Even using other fox bait types buried at bait stations, some 43% of foxes in forest habitat did not accept a single bait after many weeks before a different baiting method was tested (HERE). Perhaps more importantly, we don’t have any information about exactly how successful baiting would be against foxes in Tasmania, relative to mainland studies.  But we do know that where there is an abundance of foods, foxes are fussy and it is harder to get them to take less preferred foods, such as particular baits (HERE).

As you writhe in denial, think about this. No established exotic vertebrate pest has been eradicated from an island the size of Tasmania, possibly with the exception of coypu (a South American rodent) in the United Kingdom.  Foxes on small islands, such as Phillip Island in Victoria, have yet to be eradicated despite ongoing attempts for at least two decades.  Phillip Island is more than 600 times smaller than Tasmania, which is the world’s 26th largest island after all; a very big haystack to find a vulpine needle in unless you knew exactly where to look in the first place – which apparently we didn’t.  The opportunity to eradicate foxes existed immediately after their introduction and only if we knew where they were; not many breeding seasons later.  The inability to detect and locate foxes at low density, if we had little idea where they were released, is a key deficiency that has long been recognised as an almost insurmountable problem for their eradication in any location (HERE).  Even so, an extensive baiting effort did not get underway for years after the supposed introduction date of foxes. If Tasmania was invaded by sloths, the speed and magnitude of the response may have been quite capable of effecting their eradication.  But foxes work faster than both sloths and bureaucrats; they are the quintessential coloniser of the canine family.  If we can be confident with the current data, in all but quantum improbable and fantastic scenarios foxes have most likely won out. 

Fox sightings and physical evidence of red foxes in Tasmania recorded back in March 2008.  Even two years back, if this even approximated the actual distribution of foxes they would have already been impossible to eradicate. But how accurate are these data? Map, HERE

But hang on a minute, what if the data to support the current distribution of foxes in Tasmania is tarnished, or somehow not what it seems to be?  What happens to our conclusions if instead of accepting these results uncritically, we go searching for some ‘elephants’ lurking behind Tasmanian settees? 

There is one very big elephant indeed that everyone seems to be ignoring.  It was widely reported that someone introduced 11 foxes to Tasmania in 1999.  But this event remains undocumented, unsubstantiated and shrouded in mystery and never claimed to be a factual event, although it remains the quintessential nub of pretty much everything that has followed in some 11 years since.  Normally confidential Tasmanian Police Force documents I have only recently seen are clear that there was insufficient evidence to substantiate this event.  Yet every recent wildlife management report I have also seen accepts the assumption that these foxes were introduced with few reservations.  What generally follows it is a synopsis of the calamity that an established population of foxes would be for Tasmania – and no sane person would argue against this.  However, stating and restating the potential catastrophe to flow from an unproven event does nothing to prove that the event actually happened.  The question still remains, did this happen and most importantly, where did it happen? If anyone does know they remain very silent about it. Isn’t it time to deal with this discrepancy once and for all?

The “precautionary principle” demands no actual proof to justify an action, but only a belief that we can’t afford not to act. It sits uneasily with the scientific method, as it can be born of faith and good intentions rather than knowledge sought through testing assumptions and most importantly revision of a hypothesis when it is found wanting. The precautionary principle can be a path to the dark side for a scientist and it is indeed easy to go there through fear alone. It is much easier to stoke fears than to test the validity of those fears and even a whiff of affirmation is enough to drive it.  A scientist should always be willing to kill off a hypothesis when it does not fit the data and produce another that does.  But adherents of the precautionary principle can own a belief that may never die, so long as fear provides its oxygen.

Yet there have been real foxes introduced to Tasmania of course.  The biggest media tarts of all have been the Burnie foxes.  However, few people have stopped to really look at the circumstances or question the likelihood that they could have contributed to establishing a Tasmanian fox population.  The first Burnie fox sailed from Melbourne’s Webb Dock to Burnie in May 1998 and its arrival is undisputed given the physical evidence and video footage.  It’s the fox that started it all.

Dr Clive A Marks with a fox cub just before he took a blood sample from it for DNA and other pathology testing in the small hours of a December morning at Webb Dock in 1993.  This was one of over 100 foxes captured in Melbourne as part of an urban fox research project he lead that revealed much about fox biology, behaviour and control.  This cub was most likely closely related to the original Burnie fox, which boarded the ship very close to where this image was taken only five years later (Photo credit: Tim Bloomfield).

From 1990 until 1994 I had studied and radio-tracked foxes at Webb Dock so I knew the site and the breeding biology of these foxes quite well (HERE).  Foxes use seasonal changes in day length to time their reproduction, breeding only once a year and have a very predictable duration of pregnancy (HERE) and (HERE) and (HERE).  So, by monitoring these patterns at Webb Dock, I can say with confidence that if the first Burnie fox happened to female, there was absolutely no possibility that it was pregnant.  Short of a vulpine equivalent of the Immaculate Conception, it could not have contributed to a Tasmanian population of foxes unless others were already there, waiting dockside in Burnie.

Also unlikely is that the first Burnie fox would have bordered a ship without human inducement.  Radio-tracking studies showed that foxes did not frequent the concrete wilderness of the dock unless encouraged by feeding, nor did they shelter during daytime close to ships; they avoided these places (HERE).  Yet in 2003 when my fox age data for the Webb Dock site showed that the original Burnie fox would have almost certainly been long dead, another apparently road killed female fox turned up very near the same Burnie Port; it was assumed to be another mariner or one from a population of foxes now thriving in Burnie. Still another fox was reported to have leaped from a shipping container some 100 km away in April or May 2001 – the chances of it being pregnant if it came from Webb Dock also being zero.  Now, here you might think, two foxes could have met and begun an established population, despite the distance and two-year time gap between their arrivals – but an autopsy showed that the new Burnie fox had never reproduced.  It died a spinster.

I have never heard of one other case of a fox boarding at Webb Dock and making it to any place other than Tasmania (please let me know if you have contrary evidence).  Strangely it would appear that Webb Dock foxes have a unique attraction for the Apple Isle and this in itself is mysterious.  Because of this, I have long pondered if perhaps the criminal investigation into foxes arriving in Tasmania began on the wrong side of Bass Strait?  Yet even though these foxes arrived at different times and places, irrespective of the circumstances, there is no convincing evidence that they could have been part of a founding population – none that I have been privy to at least. True, these are foxes we know of and those who favour the “precautionary principle” may never be satisfied with those things we do not know of.

Strangely there has never been unequivocal documented evidence of a fox breeding den in Burnie.  Yet after studying foxes in Australian cities for some eight years, I know that breeding dens are quite easy to find, even at low density.  After some six breeding seasons at least, if you can’t find dens they are almost certainly not there or the people looking for them are incompetent. Take your pick.  While the DPIW web site displays dire looking data about the impossibility of detecting foxes at densities below one fox one fox in every 40 square km (HERE), this is a red herring in some cases.  If you believe, after recovering a fox body, that a breeding fox population exists in a city the size of Burnie, your chances of finding it are much higher than these figures might suggest, especially during the breeding season when you are looking for dens and not randomly searching for individual foxes.  After the breeding season, and for many months following the birth of cubs, more than four conspicuous yearling foxes as well as at least two adults are likely to be associated with the area surrounding each den.  Cubs and sub-adult foxes are highly visible for many months as they display little of the fear characteristic of adults (HERE).

More than a decade after a supposed large scale introduction, it seems strange to me that not one breeding den has been found in Tasmania – this would be irrefutable evidence after all for if would be next to impossible to fake one. It does not seem to accord with the wide distribution based on sightings and other data as well as a seeming ability to locate physical evidence of foxes.  If there are as many foxes indicated as the current data suggests then obviously they have come from numerous fox dens. There must be a rational explanation for why a breeding den has not yet been found and we should not feel ashamed to demand one.

There are other fox bodies that have popped up all over Tasmania.  While the media reports them, unfortunately there has been little appropriate skepticism when it has been most needed. Vital pieces of physical evidence come to light belatedly, anonymously or as it has been later found, in suspicious circumstances.  Some have turned out to be blatant frauds or cases where fraud could have been easily perpetrated.  When veterinary pathologists cannot agree on key issues after an autopsy of a fox body, a fact that has bedeviled some of the seemingly convincing cases, it should be absolutely clear that it is inappropriate for other people without better insights to draw conclusions, other than simply reporting that doubts about the authenticity of recovered foxes remain.  Unfortunately, because the media avoids reporting complexity like a proverbial vampire avoids garlic, you could be forgiven for believing that these cases amount to irrefutable evidence.  But in the absence of agreement over key facts, they do not amount to confirmation that a breeding population of foxes is established in Tasmania.  We remain marooned in the realm of belief – one way or the other.

Pathologist Dr David Obendorf went to the trouble of putting together a highly competent study reviewing the physical evidence of foxes in Tasmania.  Reading it made me uneasy, mainly for how willing authorities have been to accept anonymous reports, not aggressively testing either the reliability of people, the veracity of their claims or being appropriately suspicious of possible fraud.  It is nothing short of a phenomenon that when people find a fox body in Tasmania that is used as key evidence, almost without exception they or other key persons in the story require anonymity.  Strangely, thylacine and UFO reports don’t seem to warrant the same privacy concerns or fear of ridicule.  Just why is this?

The most convincing evidence that foxes exist in Tasmania comes from using a relatively new technique that extracts DNA found in faeces (scats) confirming they came from a fox with a high degree of reliability.  DNA-based research on foxes in Australia goes back to a scientific collaboration I was part of that began in Melbourne in the early 1990s (HERE) that went on to look at the relatedness of different fox populations (HERE).  Scat-DNA techniques were first developed by a team at Monash University (HERE), evaluated (HERE) and field tested in collaboration with my team in 2002/03 (HERE).  The idea is elegant; if you find a fox scat it is likely to contain traces of that fox’s DNA.  It’s evidence that a known fox has been there and you can count the number of individuals from collecting scats marked with their unique DNA.  Straightforward, but only if you can be absolutely confident that your fox scats were not planted, contaminated, mislabeled or subject to unknown errors in analysis.  Now, we have always been willing to entertain that such potential errors could exist and those people who don’t are a little, well, unscientific.

As foxes can defecate some eight times a day and are territorial, that’s an awful lot of fox crap in one discrete home range waiting to be found after a few days, especially if you have a trained dog to help you, and if you are searching outwards in a radius from one scat you have found. This is very different to the brief searches we made along narrow tracks in our past research, because we wanted to limit the number of scats found (as we only had a few thousand dollars to spend on scat tests when developing the technique!).  But if your technique were working well when you searched a wide area, you would expect to find two scats from the same fox at least a few times. In fact, because foxes are strongly territorial, you would expect to find large clusters of scats in one area.  And that’s just the problem.  Of the 56 fox scats so far identified as “fox” in Tasmania (because not all have been analysed for individual DNA), they do not come from within clusters of positive fox scats.  Of the 15 identified individuals, no two scats have come from the same fox.  Any scientist worth their lab coat should want to know why this is so or what it might imply. Some people suggested that Tasmanian foxes might not be territorial and could behave differently from their mainland counterparts.  So, in Tasmania, the fox craps and having crapped once moves on.  Really?  But if we have a breeding population of foxes established, they must be territorial for a good period of time, otherwise it is simply unbelievable that they can reproduce after establishing a breeding den – which they must do (I guess the Catch-22 is obvious to most people). However this result, as has been the case in other studies, could also mean that our capacity to detect scats is extremely low, meaning that there might be a lot more undetected foxes out there and eradication indeed looks totally impossible.  Alternatively there is something amiss, unexpected or fishy going on.

Ockham’s razor is a very useful scientific principle that tells us that the simplest explanation or hypothesis to explain the data we have is usually the correct one.  It is inconsistent with Ockham’s razor that seemingly anomalous scat-DNA results can be explained by proposing Tasmanian foxes behave in ways hitherto unknown to science.  Instead, we should look for simpler explanations.  Recently a fox scat turned up on Bruny Island some 50 km south of Hobart, suggesting that a fox had taken a boat ride or had swum much further than is typical for foxes (across the d’Entrecasteau Channel).  Here there is a far larger water barrier than that shown to promote some genetic isolation of Phillip Island foxes from mainland Australia, where there is even a bridge connecting the island with the mainland (HERE).  Such an anomaly seems to me to be an indication that we should be urgently double-checking our procedures and assumptions to ensure the scat-DNA data is telling us what we assume it is. 

There is something else to do with fox poo that seems strange.  In a mainland fox study where we collected fox scats along roads (ignoring the many others in the surrounding area), some 67% were found one metre from where we buried baits (HERE).  It is well known that foxes leave scats close to bait stations, in fact, this is typical fox behaviour. But after many thousands of baits placed in Tasmania, I am not aware of a single fox scat that has been collected from near a bait station (at least the data available to me does not indicate this).  Given the large amount of ongoing baiting in Tasmania, it is a strange result if this is indeed the case.  It does not mean that foxes are absent, as it might instead mean that foxes there don’t take the baits used.  Either possibility, more than a decade down the track, warrants some very serious consideration.

Some critics have not been backward in suggesting that fox scats have been planted in Tasmania or the technique is faulty, perhaps in ways we do not yet know.  It’s not nice to hear such claims, but nonetheless they remain valid skepticism until irrefutable contrary evidence is provided.  It is certainly not implausible that fox scats could be sent to Tasmania in an overnight parcel from the mainland and it’s in everyone’s interests to know that collection and interpretation of data cannot be influenced by such interference.  Its vital in fact, as scat DNA evidence potentially provides the only concrete and scientific evidence for the presence and location of foxes in Tasmania.

A pet red fox (called Backley) with a once frozen eastern barred bandicoot (unnamed) thawed from the Melbourne Zoo freezer and stuffed with lentils.  A series of these shots were set-up by Dr Marks in his fox pens maintained by the Victorian research group he lead from 1990 - 2003 for various studies.  Dr Maxine Piggott (then of Monash University) used the same pens to do some initial validation trials when she first developed the scat-DNA technique for foxes as discussed in this article.  Tony Peacock even used one of the better known photographs taken in this series in his seminal “Faecal Fooler” article (HERE) (uncredited of course).  Dr Marks wishes he had not used the image as he is loath to have these photographs associated with crap (Photo Credit: Victorian Institute of Animal Science, circa 1992).

Yet the individuals who made claims of possible fraud were given the equivalent of a public cyber-flogging by Tony Peacock, the CEO of the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, who wrote an extraordinary on-line piece that pilloried the very suggestion (HERE).  But would he be prepared to reimburse the Australian taxpayer from his own pocket if he is wrong?  I would not be so sure, even if that’s how sure you should be before you make such statements.  He starts with a quite reasonable question that “If you found a fox poo in a paddock in Tasmania, would you think that there was a fox in the vicinity somewhere”?  Well perhaps, and maybe a whole lot of other fox poo too!  But, that aside, there is a scientific non sequitur that opens up like a black hole and swallows the author’s argument right away, because no one is actually identifying fox poo in a Tasmanian paddock in any conventional sense.  Instead, people are sending 1000s of possible fox scats to a Canberra laboratory for DNA tests and only after is it determined to be from a fox or not -– 56 have been positive.  Apart from this being a long wait for our gum-booted turd-locator, still standing in a freezing Tasmanian paddock pondering Peacock’s Poo Postulate, accuracy alone demands that we rephrase the question.  And here we go; it should ask something like this:  “If someone you don’t know found a poo in a paddock that they did not immediately know was from a fox, collected and stored it in a way you have no idea about, transported it somehow to a lab in Canberra and then sent it (or its DNA) to another lab in Perth along a chain of custody that you have no idea about either (how much of this procedure is ISO accredited for instance?)  and then you waited many months to hear if it was from a fox - would you think that there was a fox in the vicinity somewhere”? Well?

More than a few criminal court cases have collapsed not because DNA based investigation techniques are faulted or anyone seriously questions the basic science behind them.  They fail because unless you can prove beyond reasonable doubt that your entire chain of procedures from sample collection, analysis and results are beyond manipulation or contamination, you have potentially tainted knowledge.  Results of research projects often admit to the possibility of small, sometimes unknown and unmeasurable errors, perhaps due to the developmental nature of a new technique – this is normal.  Errors or problems in field practices might only become apparent once you start to analyse many 1000s of samples and develop better skills over time.  Yet small errors in data analysis in research and development projects never normally convict people or are used to decide the fate of ecosystems.  The standards required for the entire chain of forensic evidence for DNA-based criminal conviction must abide by at least those demanded by the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO).  And do these standards apply in Tasmania in our current instance?  I have no idea.

Especially where representatives of publicly funded science institutions are following the precautionary principle, we cannot afford them to be precious about criticism and if they are, then no skerrick of scientific tradition remains.  Public scientists and bureaucrats should never flash the “experts” badge, like a deputised officer and push their critics against the wall.  This is not the action of a scientist, but a bully.  The burden of proof is constantly upon a scientist and if you can’t stand the heat in the kitchen, well, try the living room – but watch out for the elephants. 

A scientist or bureaucrat who takes, directs or influences the spending of public money for projects they are intimately involved in is disqualified from advertising themselves as objective and independent in the defence of their own vested interests.  It’s a no brainer really.  Banging on about the nobility of your quest and promoting an illusion that you are somehow naturally immunised against bias is utter nonsense.  This is why science has a process of often anonymous and always independent ‘peer review’.  Scientists get it wrong all the time and it is only by submitting to criticism that errors are found. A scientific review is not replaced by glib assurances of high standards by the people doing the work.  Nor is it a formality conducted by people you know and meet on a regular basis.  A serious scientist actually wants other totally independent scientists to find their mistakes and flush out the elephants hiding in the living room.  It is a strange scientist who does otherwise.

Scientists unprepared to have their data and studies constantly reviewed by totally independent peers belong in the peanut gallery and are not worthy of public confidence.  Yet it goes much further than this.  The application of a peer reviewed laboratory DNA test involves an entire chain of new and untested events once it is applied in the field.  Adequate review of one link of that chain that happens in the laboratory does not go far enough, and this should be obvious.  From the collection of vast amounts of scats in the field until they are analysed in the laboratory requires a process of independent oversight and great confidence in the entire process.  It is silly to bark at your critics that you are beyond reproach if you have not ensured the validity of this entire chain of procedures.  You may well be beyond criticism, but no scientist is going to take your word for it.  The best way to prove it is to use independent review and oversight as scientists must, not snarling at critics from within a closed shop.

Critics, even if they are wrong, are brave to stand alone against bureaucratic juggernaughts and this is actually a scientific tradition we need more of, not less.  We should never want Australians to fear criticising scientific institutions and be compliant, even if they bother people from time to time.  If scientists attempt to gag their critics, they are no longer scientists.

Most people are glad that Dame Jean McNamara was not a compliant soul.  She bothered and frustrated plenty of scientists for 20 years, standing alone against government as she promoted myxomatosis as a rabbit control method.  She was right and the entire government wildlife research capacity was, well, wrong.  But that could not happen now, could it?

I was proud to once have an office in the rather shabby “Dame Jean McNamara Building”.  As her painted name on the building cracks and peels with time, I wonder if this example of the perils of scientific hubris also fades in the minds of some.

So, what is the way forward?  Simple, we need some irrefutable evidence, or something close to it and we need it now.  The scat-DNA technique can be this irrefutable evidence if we are prepared to go the distance.  Because, if the present fox scat-DNA results are correct and support other much less certain evidence it signals the depressing conclusion that foxes cannot be eradicated from Tasmania.  The Tasmanian Premier should then bring the crew up from the pumps and man the lifeboat stations instead; for the ship is going down.  Praying for a miracle would be cheap, but if we are going to salvage Tasmanian wildlife it shall not be by more of the same.  The longer this uncertainty runs the less likely we can plan appropriately.  If we are actually facing an inevitable ecological Armageddon in Tasmania let’s know for sure and deal with it.

But here is the problem; we don’t know this for sure because some things with the scat-DNA data just don’t add up.  From all the current evidence taken together there is dichotomy on offer so you can validly choose to believe that either foxes abound in Tasmania or believe that there is no absolutely convincing evidence that a breeding population of foxes exists. 

After a decade, for this saga to be so short on knowledge it is a painful demonstration of how nearly 40 million dollars has bought so little good science.  The common goal that should link fox “believers” and “non-believers” is a unanimous demand for good science to produce knowledge.  The buck stops with the scientists to produce irrefutable evidence.  This is why we have science, for it is the curse of humanity that arguments about different beliefs are often bitter but never conclusive without true knowledge.

We need an independent scientific review of the entire application of the scat-DNA technique – and I do mean independent and scientific – look the words up if you’re not sure.  We had a recent parliamentary review that did not even scratch the surface of this key issue.  Yet most people know that politicians are not scientists.  While the conclusions of a report convened by the Australian Academy of Science might well have scientific credibility, parliamentary accounts committees are not scientific bodies.  Do I really need to spell this out?  It is not the role of parliamentary committees to make, break or protect scientific reputations or determine the validity of scientific decisions.  That happens within the field of science by the actions or inactions of scientists themselves.

Presently, the issue is wholly and solely scientific and forensic and one of allowing science to work the way it should.  The rigor of the scat-DNA technique and the entire chain of procedures and assumptions used to generate results needs to pass muster, audited so it can be our irrefutable evidence. It should be assessed and overseen by qualified and totally independent forensic scientists, who are spared being worded up by those with vested institutional interests and sad tales of scientific martyrdom.

Let’s welcome critics - always.  Because it is about time the public smelt fear in the hallways of public institutions lest they fail us again.  If foxes are indeed all over Tasmania it reflects a monumental failure of public institutions and their lack of ability to produce good science, let’s be honest enough to admit this and brave enough to demand higher levels of behaviour and scrutiny in the future.  If some taxpayer funded people want to feel offended – well, too bad.

But what happens if the DNA-based test and field protocols are not credible? Good.  It would mean that the biggest conservation tragedy in Tasmania’s history is instead an expensive case study in the perils of inadequate scientific rigor and review, and the misuse of the “precautionary principle”.  At the very least it might mean that things are not as bad as they presently might seem.  Let’s find out, because most likely we can do so if we demand that science does what science should.  Stay appropriately skeptical until we have some irrefutable evidence and have a listen to that Gershwin song, remembering that until you have irrefutable evidence - “it ain´t necessarily so”.

Dr Clive A Marks with an eastern quoll in a mobile laboratory located at Mole Creek Tasmania 2005 (Nocturnal Wildlife Research Pty Ltd)

Dr Clive A Marks is the director of Nocturnal Wildlife Research Pty Ltd and was the head of the Victorian government’s Vertebrate Pest Research Department for over a decade.  He has published widely on aspects of fox biology and control in independently peer-reviewed science journals (some of this scientific knowledge is hot-linked to abstracts of papers to support his argument in this article.  All of them are available as full versions for your critical consideration).

Drive with Louise Saunders
4:00pm - 6:00pm
Dr Clive A Marks talks foxes.

21/07/2010 , 11:34 AM by Louise Saunders

Dr Clive A Marks is the director of Nocturnal Wildlife Research Pty Ltd and was previously the head of the Victorian government’s Vertebrate Pest Research in Victoria.  Recently he published an extensive online review of the Tasmanian fox issue and discusses it here with Louise Saunders on 936 Drive:


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ABC Online: Quoll numbers declining

Scientists are concerned about a decline in eastern quoll numbers in Tasmania.

The eastern quoll is a carnivorous marsupial and is sometimes known as a native cat.

Scientists predicted quoll numbers would rise as the tasmanian devil population was decimated by the facial tumour disease.

But spotlighting survey work has shown numbers have fallen by half.

University of Tasmania honours student, Bronwyn Fancourt, is now doing more detailed survey work but says initial results are concerning.

“We really need to protect these guys because we don’t want to see them end up as another thylacine,” she said.

Blood samples and measurements will be taken for further research into why the species is in decline.

Story HERE