Woylie (rat-kangaroo)

The Woylie (Bettongia ogilbyi), Rat Kangaroo, or Brush-tailed Bettong, is a tiny nocturnal member of the Kangaroo family. Kangaroo meat has always been an important part of the diet of Aboriginal Australians, with bones of the Woylie having been found in archeological fire sites across the country. Today, kangaroo meat has also come to be a common part of the diet of many non-indigenous Australians.

An adult Woylie has a body of between 30 and 35 centimetres long, with a 37 centimetre tail, and weighs up to 1.5 kilograms. Its fur is a yellow-brown colour, with a pale patch on its belly and a dark tip on its muscular tail, which it curls around bundles of bark, grass, sticks and leaves in order to carry them to hidden areas under bushes and build its dome shaped nest.

The Woylie plays an important role in the life cycle of many Australian native plants. It eats several species of seeds and, if the seeds are too large, or in excess of what it can consume, they are stored in cheek pouches and buried in shallow holes. When food is scarce a Woylie will uncover its buried seeds, and any not found again will germinate and grow, maintaining natural biodiversity and plant distribution. They also eat insects which attack plants such as Eucalypts and Acacias.

Formerly a Bettongia subspecies (along with the now extinct Bettongia penicillata penicillata), it lived right across Southern Australia, covering nearly 60% of the country and a vast range of habitats, including arid scrub and desert spinifex grasslands. By the 1970’s the Woylie population had been reduced to three locations in Western Australia, and in an attempt at conservation, it was introduced into the Yarrawong and Yookamurra Sanctuaries in South Australia, the Scotia Sanctuary in New South Wales, and a few other sanctuaries around Southern Australia, though in the wild it is mostly limited to sclerophyll and Malee eucalyptus forests. In recent years the Western Australian Woylie population has again suffered severe decline and has been relisted as an endangered species.

The greatest threats to Woylies are feral cats and foxes, and so, in 2010, 40 of the animals were transferred to a predator-proof enclosure in the Perup Sanctuary in Western Australia where it is hoped that the population will grow to 400 individuals by 2020. Other threats, including the environmental impact of introduced grazing animals, land clearing and possibly fire hazard reduction (back-burning), have added to the decrease in numbers and extinction from many natural habitats.

A sudden population crash in 2001, thought to have been caused by a parasitic infestation as well as predation and loss of habitat, drastically reduced numbers of Woylie in the wild. Their total number in 2011, both wild and in captivity, were estimated at less than 5,600, making them critically endangered and at risk of extinction.

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