OUR FOR­GOT­TEN ICON

Science Illustrated - - CON­TENTS -

Who else for­got about the bandi­coot?

Aus­tralia is a land of cute an­i­mals on the verge of ex­tinc­tion. Be­fore us stretches a line of unique species, all de­mand­ing your con­ser­va­tion at­ten­tion. The Tas­ma­nian devil. The south­ern hairy-nosed wom­bat. The Tiger quoll. The brush-tailed rock wal­laby. The bilby.

That last one there, the bilby, has much to an­swer for. Be­cause the bilby - now all but en­trenched as an Easter al­ter­na­tive to the hated rab­bit - is a mem­ber of the or­der Per­amele­mor­phia, along with a bunch of lit­tle crit­ters you may dimly re­mem­ber from old kid’s books like the Mud­dleHeaded Wom­bat.

Those crit­ters are the bandi­coots, Aus­tralia’s an­swer to the junk­yard rat. In­deed, in older books any­way, com­mon long-nosed bandi­coots are of­ten cast as mis­chievous hoard­ers, thieves, or in the case of Blinky Bill, as hench­men.

But we don’t hear much about them th­ese days, es­pe­cially the rather at­trac­tive and en­dan­gered East­ern barred bandi­coot.

More like a small rab­bit than a rat, this lit­tle crea­ture roamed the Vic­to­rian plains un­til foxes ar­rived. Now, th­ese bandi­coots are re­stricted to Tas­ma­nia and a hand­ful of con­ser­va­tion sites on the main­land.

While the long-nosed bandi­coot is om­niv­o­rous - and thus can thrive in rub­bish tips - the East­ern barred bandi­coot is a car­ni­vore like the bilby. It uses that dis­tinc­tive nose to probe into the soil for tasty crick­ets, worms and the oc­ca­sional bee­tle.

Apart from foxes, this bandi­coot must also com­pete with rab­bits. It has a su­per-short ges­ta­tion pe­riod of just 12 days, which is great, and takes about as long as a rab­bit to reach sex­ual ma­tu­rity, but it usu­ally only pro­duces two or three young, ver­sus six to 10 for rab­bits.

Av­er­age ev­ery­thing out, and rab­bits pro­duce three fe­male off­spring per month. Plus rab­bits eat grass, while the bandi­coot has to hunt for prey.

So de­spite that su­per-short ges­ta­tion pe­riod, this is why the poor East­ern barred bandi­coot lost its grip on the main­land.

And like so many other en­dan­gered mar­su­pi­als, there are so­phis­ti­cated breed­ing pro­grams un­der­way, and new pop­u­la­tions be­ing es­tab­lished in Vic­to­ria. So why have so many peo­ple for­got­ten about the bandi­coot?

A gen­er­a­tion ago, the bandi­coot was on the “kinder­garten poster” list of iconic Aussie an­i­mals, right there with the koala, wom­bat, pos­sum, kan­ga­roo, and even the num­bat. Some­how, though, it dropped off.

We blame the bilby. After all, what chance does the bandi­coot have, while its big­gest ri­val is brib­ing its way into our hearts with choco­late?

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