It’s time we developed a new appreciation for these misunderstood and much-maligned marsupials.
It’s time we learnt to love these misunderstood marsupials.
BANDICOOT MENACE”, cried a heading on the letters page of Sydney’s The Sun back in 1951. Armed with a dictionar y def inition, the newspaper’s aggrieved correspondent declared that the so-called menace was more precisely a “large Indian rat”, and one no more native to Australia than the “rabbit or bulbul”. What of the supposed foreigner’s crime? The bandicoot apparently posed a grave threat to humans and dogs through “its propensity as a carrier and distributor of ticks”. Other newspaper reports of the day said much the same: the bandicoot was the animal “ticks love best”. The drastic, if improbable, proposed solution was to confine bandicoots to the zoo! Almost 70 years on, bandicoots still roam free, thankfully. But the vitriol directed their way has, if anything, intensif ied and the tick controversy endures. Some Australian native animals are always receiving a bad rap.
What’s in a name? In one sense, that 1950s rat association was correct. The term ‘bandicoot’ originated on the Indian sub-continent as an 18th-century corruption of ‘pandi kokku’ (literally ‘pig-rat’) from the language Telugu, and ‘bandicoot rat’ has long been the common name for several species of giant rodent found in south Asia. They are signif icant agricultural pests and can carry dangerous diseases such as plague and typhus. But the black-and-white certainty regarding the origin of Australia’s totally unrelated animals was of course wrong. Only the name is an Asian import.
Restricted to Australia and Melanesia, the 20 or so true bandicoot species are all ground-dwelling marsupial omnivores. They range in size from, yes, a large rat to a rabbit. Elongated feet and strong forepaws make them expert diggers and, like koalas and wombats, female bandicoots are equipped with backward opening pouches. Insects, insect larvae, spiders and other invertebrates are staple bandicoot fare. Depending on the species, roots, tubers, fruits, seeds, fungi, and even small skinks will also be eaten. They are exclusively nocturnal, sheltering in grass-lined nests by day, emerging at dusk to feed. As bandicoots dig and poke their conical snouts into the ground foraging for food, they aerate soil and keep pests in check – diminutive marsupial gardeners promoting ecological health.
‘Bandicoot’ f irst appeared in an Australian context in 1799 when George Bass described encounters with Aboriginal people in Van Diemen’s Land. Here, the “bones of small mammals, such as opossums, squirrels, kangooroo rats, and bandicoots were numerous round their deserted f ire-places”. Other early observers, like Bass, either mistook bandicoots for rats, or dismissed them as ‘rat-like’, and not on a par with exotic creatures such as the platypus or echidna. But as a synonym for rat, or a rat-like native animal, the name stuck, and the bandicoot entered Australian folklore. By the mid-1820s bandicoots had become synonymous with poverty and deprivation. Undernourished, worthless livestock were “miserable bandicoot cattle”. An unhappy person was as “miserable as a bandicoot”.
IN 1877 THE QUEENSLAND government set up a ‘marsupial board’ in each regional pastoral district that paid a bounty to “encourage the destruction of marsupials and dingoes”. Not even the smallest creatures were spared from the merciless scheme that ran for more than 50 years. Such was their status as despised vermin that during one 15-month period in the early 1900s, a single Queensland marsupial board shelled out for more than 33,000 bandicoot, pademelon and rat kangaroo scalps. The going rate was a mere twopence a scalp. Yet waste not, want not – more than a few scalped marsupials must also have ended up in the pot. The Australian edition of the famed Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management included recipes for a veritable menagerie of native fauna, including bandicoot stewed in milk!
Among the 11 bandicoot species that existed historically in Australia, three – the pig-footed, desert and lesser rabbit-eared bandicoot – are now extinct, all gone from Central Australia by the 1960s. Of the remaining species, several are severely threatened or drastically reduced in range and numbers due to habitat degradation and fragmentation, altered f ire regimes, competition with rabbits, and predation by red foxes and both domestic and feral cats and dogs.
The once widespread western barred bandicoot was reduced to remnant populations on Bernier and Dorre islands off Shark Bay in Western Australia, but active reintroduction programs will hopefully see its sustained return to mainland sites declared free of feral predators. It’s a similar story for the golden bandicoot, now reduced to island strongholds and small populations in remote parts of the Kimberley.
Fortunately, for some species of bandicoot, the story is not always such a perilous one. Along the eastern margins of the continent, the long-nosed bandicoot has been one species that is certainly holding its own – if not across its complete historic range, then certainly in some surprising places. Long-nosed bandicoots turned up unexpectedly in parts of Sydney’s inner west during the early 2000s, then vanished inexplicably after a few years, yet the species has recently reintroduced itself to Bradleys Head and Dobroyd Head in Sydney Harbour National Park.
ATHIRD ISOLATED and endangered population of longnosed bandicoots survives on nearby North Head, again within the bounds of the national park. It has been closely monitored since the late 1990s by f ield staff of the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) in collaboration with researchers from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences of the University of Sydney.
Led by Professor Peter Banks, the university team estimates that bandicoot numbers have increased in recent years from about 100 to as many as 160, despite redevelopment of the adjoining historic St Patrick’s Estate. Almost counter-intuitively, housing has created what Peter calls a “bandicoot paradise”. There, these animals have the best of all worlds. By day, they shelter in the surrounding mosaic of remnant bushland, only coming out at night to feed. “They like to forage on manicured lawns,” Peter explains. “We water the grass making it soft to dig in and productive.” Up to three times as many animals are likely to be trapped for study-and-release in such an environment than in unaltered habitat. “[This is] all a bit weird,” Peter admits. “If we wanted to absolutely secure the North Head population, you’d clear more native vegetation and turn it into lawn.” Of course, that will never happen, and, apart from soft grass over which to forage, the obvious key to bandicoot recovery is predator control. And that leads right back to the controversial subject of ticks.
Concern about ticks has risen signif icantly since a link, f irst identif ied in 2009, was established between the paralysis tick and a condition known as mammalian meat allergy (MMA), which can cause severe anaphylactic reactions in some tick-bite victims after they eat mammalian meat products. Australia has the highest prevalence in the world of MMA.
Increasing bandicoot numbers on Sydney’s bushland margins have only served to compound such concerns. In the hope of suppressing the bandicoot population and supposedly easing the tick menace, calls have been made to curtail fox baiting. But Peter is adamant that bandicoots – as in past decades – have been unfairly smeared in this ecological blame game.
He doesn’t deny they carry ticks. But he’s adamant “there is no quantitative evidence” to condemn bandicoots alone. All warm-blooded animals are potential hosts, and, from his observations, dogs, cats, foxes, rabbits, rats, possums and wallabies are all guilty of tick dispersal.
For Peter, if there is a singular villain it is that global hitchhiker, the widely reviled black rat. He estimates that more than 4000 black rats (25 times the bandicoot population) live on North Head alone, carrying ticks wherever they roam.
So, when weighing up the value of endangered bandicoots in and around our cities, it would be best not to rush to the judgements of the past. Surely we are better off living alongside a bandicoot paradise than among a rat menace.
Almost counter-intuitively, housing has created what Peter calls a “bandicoot paradise”.
After being trapped by researchers at North Head, in Sydney Harbour NP, this long-nosed bandicoot stops for a feed on release.
NPWS ranger Lee de Gail lays cage traps for bandicoots in lomandra grass during monitoring at Sydney Harbour NP.
The North Head population’s response to urban development is being seen as a model for other wildlife populations isolated elsewhere by urbanisation.
Capturing and measuring animals has been crucial to the long-term study (below left and right) of an endangered long-nosed bandicoot population at North Head, Sydney.