Ur­ban bandi­coots

It’s time we de­vel­oped a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion for these mis­un­der­stood and much-ma­ligned mar­su­pi­als.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY BY ALAS­DAIR MCGRE­GOR PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY ES­THER BEATON

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.

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