Bandicoot and bilby review finds gaps in current knowledge

December 14, 2016

Basic biological information about bandicoots remains a mystery

Basic biological information about bandicoots remains a mystery

By Murdoch alumni and freelance science journalist Lisa Morrison, originally published in Science Network WA.

The evolutionary history of a group of small, solitary marsupials native to Australasia requires further research to fill in knowledge gaps, a review by Perth academics suggests.

Twenty-two bandicoot and bilby species are known to dwell in New Guinea rainforest and throughout Australia.

Murdoch University veterinary anatomy senior lecturer Dr Natalie Warburton says basic biological information about some species remains a mystery, 200 years after European settlement.

Most West Australians would be surprised to learn there were so many different bandicoot species, according to Dr Warburton.

“There’s a really big diversity of bandicoots, which isn’t something most people are aware of,” she says.

“Around Perth, many people would recognise a quenda. In some suburbs people get them in their backyard, but in most other places bandicoots tend to be much less visible.

“While they are doing pretty well in the Perth hills and bushland remnants in the metropolitan area, nationally they are actually really vulnerable.”

Bandicoots and bilbies range in size from a rat to a small dog, though most weigh around 1kg.  They forage mainly at night for insects, fungi, fruit and roots by digging through leaf litter and soil.

They face ongoing pressure from introduced predators, such as foxes and cats, and human impacts, including habitat loss and traffic.

Dr Warburton and Western Australian Museum mammal curator Dr Kenny Travouillon conducted a comprehensive review of scientific literature published over the past 25 years, including fossil records dating back approximately 30 million years, to provide an up-to-date basis for future studies.

The review highlighted unanswered questions about the Australian species and a “big deficit” about the New Guinea animals.

“The New Guinea species are quite distinct and there is almost nothing known about the biology of those animals,” Dr Warburton says.

This poses a problem when trying to trace their evolutionary history, she says.

“Unless you have a clear understanding of the biology of all the different animals in that group…you can’t tell the full story of the evolution of these animals,” she says.

There has been a “huge” reduction in the distribution of Australian bandicoots and bilbies across Australia, according to Dr Warburton.

“Bilbies used to be found right across Australia… from the west coast to Queensland and from the Northern Territory right down to the South Australian coast,” she says.

“In relatively recent times, this huge geographic range has contracted to the Pilbara and Kimberley areas.”

Despite shrinking populations and distribution, and even the extinction of some species, their  ‘rat-like’ appearance and ‘cryptic’ nature tends to prevent bandicoots and bilbies from appealing to the public and conservation efforts.

“When you think of animals the public are aware of, they are typically big, colourful and have features that would be endearing to people,” Dr Warburton says. “We need to protect the less conspicuous wildlife too.”

Their research was published in the Australian Journal of Zoology in September.

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