Wildlife Management Program No. 38
Department of Conservation and Land Management, July 2003
About the document
The dibbler was described by Gray (1842) as Phascogale apicalis, from a purchased specimen with no location data, but which Gray concluded, through its affinities, was from Australasia. The species was reassigned soon afterwards to another carnivorous marsupial genus, Antechinus (Gray 1844; Gould 1863). A number of specimens were collected in Western Australia during the next 62 years, including those provided by the naturalist and collector John Gilbert for the taxonomist John Gould. Gilbert collected dibblers from Victoria Plains, Moore River, Wanneroo and King Georges Sound (Morcombe 1967). Other specimens were provided by George Masters in 1865, from the Pallinup River, and John Tunney, from the Kojonup area, in 1904. There was no subsequent record of the species until 1967, when Michael Morcombe captured two dibblers in traps set on Banksia attenuata flowers at Cheyne Beach east of Albany (Morcombe 1967).
A reassessment of standard morphological characters within the carnivorous marsupials led Tate (1947) to suggest splitting Antechinus into four smaller genera, placing the dibbler in the new genus Parantechinus as the type-species. Subsequent studies supported this concept, including the work of Woolley (1982) using penis morphology. There are, however, various views amongst morphologists on the inclusion of other species within the genus. Molecular systematics has also supported a variety of arrangements within this section of the Dasyuridae, and generic groupings are far from settled (Krajewski and Westerman 2003).
Gould (1863) drew attention to the "peculiarly grizzled" appearance of the species produced by the black and white colour of the longer hairs, and on this basis he dubbed the animal the Freckled Antechinus. In his notebook and letters to Gould, Gilbert recorded three Aboriginal names for the species, Marn-dern (Moore River area), Wy a lung (Perth) and Dib-bler (King Georges Sound) (Gould 1863; Whittell 1954; Wagstaffe and Rutherford 1955). In a short paper recommending the use of Aboriginal names for Western Australian marsupials, Glauert (1928) selected "dibbler" for this species and most subsequent authors (Morcombe 1967; Ride 1970) have followed this practice. In compiling his book "The Mammals of Australia", however, Strahan (2003) introduced the common name "southern dibbler" for P. apicalis and "northern dibbler" for the sandstone antechinus, listed in the book as P. bilarni. Given the lack of agreement about the inclusion of bilarni in Parantechinus (Krajewski and Westerman 2003), the well-established use of "dibbler" to refer only to P. apicalis is recommended and is followed in this plan.
No subspecies of the dibbler have been described, although mainland specimens are significantly larger than island animals (Woolley 1991). Allozyme electrophoresis showed no genetic differences between island and mainland animals at 46 loci (M. Adams, unpublished) but low levels of variation are commonly reported in dasyurid marsupials (Baverstock et al. 1984). An attempt to resolve the question using mtDNA was thwarted by difficulties in extracting suitable DNA from ear punch material (Cooper and Birrell 1996). Mills et al. (in press) carried out a more successful mitochondrial DNA study using liver tissue, showing that the structuring of mitochondrial DNA haplotypes supports two major lineages within dibblers: those from the islands, and those from the south coast. They also used microsatellites to study genetic variation within and between island and mainland dibbler populations, finding that the Fitzgerald River National Park (FRNP) population contains significantly more genetic variation than either Boullanger or Whitlock Island populations.