Story & photo Mary Gardner
An oncoming car threatened me, so I stepped farther aside to the narrow verge and paused. The stink of exhaust streaming past me was strong but there was another stench in the air. I sniffed through the jumble of vegetation; there I found a dead bandicoot (Isoodon macrourus).
They’re nocturnal and shy, but living here inside town. Are bandicoots why the neighbour’s dog barks at the bushes every night? Unlike cats, these creatures will eat worms and grubs as well as small lizards and mice. Unlike rabbits, they dig and eat underground lily bulbs, tubers and fungi. They’re omnivores, like us humans.
The official family name is Peramelemorphia, which means ‘with the body shape of a badger’. But they are not badgers and do not dig burrows for homes. At best they nestle deep within grasses. If you build a small wood-stick cabin in a quiet part of your yard, they may adopt it.
The word ‘bandicoot’ is European slang dating from 1790. They were likened to ‘bandicota’, a word from the Telugu language in India for a type of rat. From the 1830s, bandicoot featured in unhappy new proverbs like ‘as miserable as a bandicoot’ or ‘as poor as a bandicoot’. There also arose the verb to bandicoot which means ‘to surreptitiously dig up potatoes without disturbing the green tops’.
Bandicoots remain a mystery. Marsupial mammals, both sexes have a pouch underneath that opens to the back. Their sharp front teeth are in multiple pairs, as with other carnivorous marsupials such as quolls. But their second and third toes are fused together, as are those of kangaroos and possums.
The adults are solitary. The female is pregnant for only twelve days, the shortest time for any mammal. Recently, a birthing was filmed. A female lies on her back, licking and wetting a one-centimetre trail from bum to pouch. In five minutes flat, a membrane sac wiggles along. The female licks it open. The blind, hairless young secure themselves each on a nearby teat. They are weaned at two months. A couple of days later, a new litter is born.
With their high birth rate, bandicoots can outbreed rabbits. So where are they all? In fact, where are all the small native mammals, ranging in size from rat to rabbit? Our quolls, bilbies, sugar gliders, potoroos and more?
Since 2011, a team of international specialists hosted by Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis are collaborating on this very question. They report a wave of small mammal extinctions first hit southern Australia early in the last century. Since the 1970s, another wave appears to be underway throughout northern Australia, from the Kimberley to Kakadu.
Their final report is out soon. In the south the problem appears to be foxes. To the north it’s cats. These are making the best of European land uses to expand their ranges and take out small mammals. Paradoxically, one of the self-sustaining ways to halt them is re-establishing a strong dingo presence.
But how, from city to outback, are we to do that? This debate is to be streamed live on the internet on March 27. You can put your questions to the panel (visit http://bit.ly/wGQjIM).
Back in the Northern Rivers, another introduced killer is the car. In 2004, Taylor and Goldingay’s survey counted one road kill for every four kilometres per week. Bandicoots died at twice the rate of possums or magpies. Now what can we do about that?
More about this and other topics on Mary’s website www.tangleoflife.org. Join her on 7 March at Santos in Mullumbimby at 6pm for the latest in films and experiments about nature science.