So what is Nature's Wonderland's animal mascot?
Well, he's a Bilby — one with lots of personality!
What's a bilby, you ask?
The bilby, Macrotis lagotis, is an Australian species of nocturnal omnivorous animal in the Peramelemorphia order. The common name bilby usually refers to Macrotis lagotis, but is distinguished from Macrotis leucura (the Lesser Bilby) by the name Greater Bilby. It is also referred to as the dalgyte or pinkie and occasionally the 'Rabbit-Eared Bandicoot'. The Greater Bilby lives in arid areas of Central Australia and is an important part of traditional indigenous culture in the deserts of Central Australia. The large rabbit like ears of the Greater Bilby have also made it a popular Australian icon at Easter. Sadly, through habitat loss and competition with introduced animals, the number of these small mammals has dramatically reduced over the last 100 years.
At first glance many people guess the Bilby to be a rabbit, and then others believe it is some sort of mouse, but neither is true! The Bilby is actually a marsupial that is most closely related to the bandicoot. The meaning of the word in an Aboriginal language is "long nosed rat", indicating that more than one person along the way has confused this animal with others, as it really is quite peculiar looking!
Bilbies are quite interesting to look at, to say the least. They have a pointy muzzle that is not unlike a rat and very long ears, quite like a rabbit. As members of the group of ground-dwelling marsupials known as bandicoots, bilbies have long pointed snouts and compact bodies. Bilbies measure between 29 and 55cm in length and differ from other bandicoots by their larger ears, long silky fur and longer tails. Their large ears allow them to have extraordinary hearing.
Bilbies are remarkable burrowers, using their strong forelimbs and claws to build extensive tunnels. One bilby may make up to twelve burrows within its home range to use for shelter. They have long slender tongues that they use to eat a specialised diet of seeds, insects, bulbs, fruit and fungi. Bilbies are active at night, sheltering in their burrows during the daytime.
The term bilby is a loan word from the Yuwaalaraay Aboriginal language of northern New South Wales, meaning long-nosed rat. It is known as dalgite in Western Australia, and the nickname pinkie is sometimes used in South Australia. The Wiradjuri of New South Wales also call it bilby.
The bilby is a unique animal, and is well known within Australia. It has become a popular native alternative to the Easter Bunny, known as the Easter Bilby. A National Bilby Day is held in Australia on the 2nd Sunday in September to raise funds for conservation projects.
A hundred years ago, bilbies were common in many habitats throughout Australia, from the dry interior to temperate coastal regions. Changes to the bilby's habitat have seen their numbers greatly reduced and today the species is nationally listed as vulnerable, while the Lesser Bilby became extinct in the 1950s. The Greater Bilby now occurs only in fragmented populations in mulga shrublands and spinifex grasslands in the Tanami Desert of the Northern Territory; in the Gibson and Great Sandy Deserts and the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of Western Australia; and the Mitchell Grasslands of southwest Queensland.
While there are many threats contributing to the dramatic decline of bilby populations, the most important of these are habitat loss and change, and competition with introduced animals. As agricultural activities extended over the more fertile regions of Australia the bilby's habitat has changed rapidly. Changing fire patterns also affect the type and abundance of food plants.
Competition with introduced animals is a major threat as domestic stock like cattle and sheep eat the same plants. Rabbits compete with bilbies for their food and burrows and foxes and feral cats also prey on them.
Having disappeared from the areas intensively grazed by livestock as well as those areas densely populated by rabbits, cats and foxes, bilbies now only survive in small isolated populations in the driest and least fertile regions of arid Australia.
Greater Bilby. Photo: Save The Bilby Fund
Bilbies have the characteristics of long bandicoot muzzle and very long ears. Compared to bandicoots, they have a longer tail, bigger ears, and softer, silky fur. The size of their ears allows them to have better hearing as well. At 1 to 2.4 kilograms (2.2 to 5.3 lb), the male is about the same size as a rabbit, although male animals in good condition have been known to grow up to 3.7 kilograms (8.2 lb) in captivity. The female is smaller, and weighs around 0.8 to 1.1 kilograms (1.8 to 2.4 lb). The
Greater Bilby has an excellent sense of smell and sharp hearing. Its fur is blue-grey with patches of tan and it is very soft. The tail is black and white with a distinct crest. The Greater Bilby has strong forelimbs and thick claws, which it uses to dig for food and make burrows.
Unlike bandicoots, bilbies are excellent burrowers and build extensive tunnel systems that spiral down, making it hard for predators to get in. A bilby typically makes a number of burrows within its home range, up to about a dozen, and moves between them, using them for shelter both from predators and the heat of the day. A female bilby's pouch faces backwards, which prevents it from getting filled with dirt while she is digging.
The Bilby is quite impressive as it does not need to drink water to stay alive; instead it gets all of the moisture that it needs from what it eats. Their diet generally includes insect larvae, spiders, fruit, fungus, bulbs, and even small animals. The species finds their food by digging in the soil and then using their long tongues to pull the food from the ground.
The Bilby has a gestational period that is worth noting, and that is because it is one of the shortest gestational periods of all known mammals. From the onset, the gestational period of this mammal is just 12 to 14 days! The species will breed all year long and will have one to three young at a time. The babies remain in the mothers pouch for about 80 days and after this time they are only dependent on their mothers for about two weeks.
The Bilby is protected throughout Australia where it occurs. A national Recovery Plan is being developed to ensure the survival of the bilby. This program includes breeding in captivity, monitoring populations, and re-establishing bilbies where they once lived. There have been reasonably successful moves to popularise the bilby as a native alternative to the Easter Bunny by selling chocolate Easter Bilbies (sometimes with a portion of the profits going to bilby protection and research). Reintroduction efforts have also begun, with a successful reintroduction into the Arid Recovery Reserve in South Australia in 2000, and plans underway for a reintroduction into Currawinya National Park in Queensland, with a recent success with six bilbies released into the feral-free sanctuary in early February 2006.
Successful reintroductions have also occurred onto Peron Peninsula in Western Australia as a part of Western Shield. Successful reintroductions have also occurred on other conservation lands, including islands and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy's Scotia and Yookamurra Sanctuaries. There is a highly-successful bilby breeding program at Kanyana Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, near Perth, Western Australia.
The Save the Bilby project, based in the Queensland town of Charleville, is an example of a few determined individuals making a big difference. The local team aims to build a predator-proof enclosure surrounding part of a national park to reintroduce Bilbies into far western Queensland. They have raised money for their project by running "meet the Bilby" evenings, with a talk, video and meeting of the captive bilby breeding colony, and by selling bilby merchandise in shopping centres across southern Queensland.
How can I help?
You can help bilbies and other threatened species by:
- calling the Save the Bilby team to donate your time (if you live in southern QLD) or to make a financial contribution;
- protecting remnant bush in your community or on your land to help provide habitat for all our native animals, including the bilby;
- supporting local efforts to conserve threatened species in your area by joining a local organisation such as a landcare or catchment group, natural history or a 'friends of' group or by volunteering for Green Corps or the Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers;
- participating in special events, information nights, tree planting days and weed eradication programs.