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Bettongs, Potoroos and the Musky Rat-kangaroo

Bettongs, Potoroos and the Musky Rat-kangaroo

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Bettongs, Potoroos and the Musky Rat-kangaroo

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Sep 10, 2007


Rat-kangaroos have not coped well with the impact of European settlement in Australia. Of the 11 species present in 1788, two are extinct, two are either mostly or totally restricted to offshore islands and the range of all other species has been much reduced. Habitat alienation, altered fire regimes, grazing, predation by introduced carnivores, competition from rabbits and timber harvesting have variously taken their toll on these little-seen animals.

The rat-kangaroo was one of the first Australian marsupials to be seen alive in Europe. Collected close to the settlement at Sydney Cove, a pair of them were exhibited in London in 1789. These animals were called by the local Aboriginal people 'Pot-o-roo', and by the European settlers, 'Kangooroo rat'. They were the Long-nosed Potoroo, Potorous tridactylus, the first of what we now call 'Rat-kangaroos' to be discovered.

Bettongs, Potoroos and the Musky Rat-kangaroo provides an extraordinary glimpse into the secretive lives of these unusual marsupials. It also reveals little-known facts about the critical functional role these creatures play in maintaining the forest and woodland habitats in which they live.

Winner of the 2008 Whitley Award for Natural History.

Sep 10, 2007

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Bettongs, Potoroos and the Musky Rat-kangaroo - Andrew Claridge




Although kangaroos are the most universally recognised Australian marsupial, and indeed were among the first such animals to be encountered by Europeans, it was in fact one of their small cousins, a rat-kangaroo, that was first seen alive in England. A pair of rat-kangaroos – presumably collected by the First Fleeters close to the settlement at Sydney Cove – were exhibited in London, at the Exeter Exchange in The Strand in 1789.

The local Sydney Cove Aborigines called the animal ‘Pot-o-roo’, and the European settlers gave it the name ‘Kangooroo rat’. It was the Long-nosed Potoroo, Potorous tridactylus, and the first of what we now call ‘rat-kangaroos’ to be discovered.

In the same year the published journals of Governor Arthur Phillip and of Surgeon-General John White carried descriptions and engravings of the animals (Figures 1.1 and 1.2). White’s account was the first to use the name ‘Poto Roo’ and that, with the illustration by John Hunter, was the basis for the first formal description of a rat-kangaroo, by John Kerr, in February 1792. Curiously, Kerr (or was it Hunter?) seemingly failed to note the syndactylous claws of the hind feet (two small toes within a single sheath of skin), and so miscounted the number of toes. That error has since been perpetuated by the specific name of his making, tridactylus, ever since. An alternate explanation is that Kerr chose to emphasise the apparent three-toed-ness of the foot, considering that the two syndactylous toes would be seen as one toe by most observers.

Figure 1.2 Illustration of the ‘Pot-o-roo’ from the journal of Surgeon-General John White (1789).

Our present-day interest in rat-kangaroos began when Percy Finck, a farmer in south-western Victoria, caught a potoroo. Finck supplemented his income (and helped feed the family) by trapping rabbits, which were common in the farmland and adjacent scrubland north of Portland. One morning in 1961, there was a stranger in one of his rabbit traps. Finck was a fine field naturalist, familiar with the local wildlife, but this animal was new to him. He contacted the local Inspector of Fisheries and Wildlife who arranged for the body to be sent to Melbourne. There, it was identified as a Long-nosed Potoroo, the first specimen to be found in Victoria for many years. Indeed, it had been assumed that the species was extinct in that state. Finck’s potoroo proved that this was not so, and over the next few years, by dint of searching the old records and chasing up vague reports, it was established that these small rat-kangaroos were quite widespread, largely along the coastal regions of Victoria.

The same species is quite common in Tasmania, and studies by Eric Guiler at the University of Tasmania in Hobart had probed some aspects of their ecology and reproduction, including the recognition that much of their diet was composed of fungi. This intriguing fact prompted closer investigation and, some years later, led to the realisation that a fascinating relationship existed between rat-kangaroos, their diet and their forest habitat.

Table 1.1 General characteristics of modern species of rat-kangaroos. Figures in brackets represent average measurements.

Other species of rat-kangaroo came under scrutiny, and the search for an understanding of these small relatives of the familiar kangaroos and wallabies began in earnest. This in turn led to the discovery of two previously unknown species, and the rediscovery of another. It also helped unravel some of the lifestyle of rat-kangaroos and a determination to establish adequate conservation programs for potoroos and their relatives, the bettongs (Aepyprymnus rufescens and Bettongia species), and the Musky Rat-kangaroo, Hypsiprymnodon moschatus.

In all, there are 11 modern species of rat-kangaroos, one (the Musky Rat-kangaroo) in the family Hypsiprymnodontidae and 10 in the family Potoroidae (see Table 1.1). The 10 species in the family Potoroidae are referred to as potoroids. Of these, the Desert Rat-kangaroo, Caloprymnus campestris, and the Broad-faced Potoroo, Potorous platyops, are presumed to be extinct.

Early discovery

The early years of the 19th century were a time of great expansion of knowledge and understanding of the fauna of Australia. It fell to the French, in the person of Anselme Desmarest, to describe, in 1822, Bettongia (originally Kangurus) gaimardi, named for the collector Joseph Paul Gaimard. In 1838 Ogilby described a specimen which he cited as from the ‘Hunter’s River NSW’ as Hypsiprymnus cuniculus, so named as its fur resembled that of a rabbit. However, some confusion occurred as it is now thought that this specimen actually was from Tasmania, the Tasmanian Bettong (see page 56). However, it was not until 1967 that Norman Wakefield demonstrated that both of these were from the same species and that the type specimen had been from the foothills of the Blue Mountains when the L’Uranie visited Sydney during December 1819 – hence the incongruous vernacular name. The Tasmanian Bettong is now referred to as Bettongia gaimardi cuniculus, a sub-species of the now extinct mainland form.

Joseph Paul Gaimard himself shared in the collection and description of the next rat-kangaroo to be named, the Burrowing Bettong, which was collected earlier during the same voyage on Dirk Hartog Island near Shark Bay in Western Australia (see page 56). Like the Tasmanian Bettong, the Burrowing Bettong is also extinct at its original collection locality.

The Brush-tailed Bettong was described in 1837 by John Edward Gray of the British Museum. We cannot be certain of the origin of his specimen, but it probably came from New South Wales. In 1841 Richard Waterhouse named Hypsiprymnus ogilbyi from the Swan River at York in Western Australia, and in 1845 described Bettongia gouldii from north of Adelaide; both of these species are now known to be B. penicillata (see page 57). Gray was also responsible for naming the Rufous Bettong, as Bettongia rufescens, in 1837, although he did not recognise the special characteristics that Alfred Henry Garrod did, in 1875, when he erected the genus Aepyprymnus (see page 58).

Gilbert’s Potoroo, Potorous gilbertii (see page 59), was named in 1841 by John Gould for his indefatigable collector John Gilbert, who had collected at King George’s Sound in the far south-west of Western Australia. Only a handful of specimens were ever seen and, for nearly 120 years, it was believed that the species was extinct. Searches in the 1970s failed to find any evidence of its continued existence. To add to the sad tale, it was considered by modern biologists to be just a form of the eastern Long-nosed Potoroo, Potorous tridactylus (see page 59). Then, in late 1994 in a truly serendipitous piece of good fortune, Liz Sinclair (then of the University of Western Australia) while hunting for quokkas (a small wallaby) at Two People’s Bay National Park caught the long-lost Gilbert’s Potoroo. A concerted research and conservation program has been in place since that exciting rediscovery (see Chapter 9).

The 1840s were a productive time for descriptions of rat-kangaroos by John Gould. The Desert Rat-kangaroo (see page 60) came ‘from the interior of South Australia’, but returned to oblivion almost as soon as it was found and described in 1843. It was not seen again until 1931, when Hedley Herbert Finlayson, Curator of Mammals at the South Australian Museum, rediscovered it with the help of local Aborigines. But the Desert Rat-kangaroo has not been seen again since, although it most likely lingered on in Central Australia until perhaps the late 1940s. Our colleagues Steve Carr and Tony Robinson, who have continued the search for the Desert Rat-kangaroo through the written record and many interviews, are optimistic that it is still somewhere out there.

John Gilbert was also the collector of the Broad-faced Potoroo found in the ‘Walyema Swamps near Northam, Western Australia’, and described by Gould in 1844 (see page 60). The last specimens known to have been taken from the wild were sold to the National Museum of Victoria in 1875 and it has never been seen alive since.

The Musky Rat-kangaroo (see page 61) was the last of the 19th century rat-kangaroo discoveries. It was described by Edward Pierson Ramsay in 1876, from specimens collected during an expedition to the Herbert River in north Queensland during the summer of 1874.

So within less than a century of the first European settlement at Sydney nine species of rat-kangaroos had been discovered and named. Ninety years were to pass before another species was recognised. Norman Wakefield’s studies of sub-fossil bone deposits in eastern Victoria in the 1960s yielded many skulls of bettongs that were by that time long extinct in south-eastern Australia. In his efforts to identify the species involved, he also reviewed the taxonomy of eastern Australian Bettongia and recognised that, not only had the so-called Tasmanian Bettong been widespread throughout south-eastern Australia but that a different species had been present in Queensland. He named it Bettongia tropica, the Northern Bettong (see page 58).

Finally, the discovery of the Long-footed Potoroo was the result of good fortune in the first instance (although not for the specimens concerned) and some detailed and finicky detective work in the laboratory later on. There had long been a tradition of trapping wild dogs in the forests of eastern Victoria. It was this practice that led to the capture by dogman Bob Stokes of the first ‘long-foot’, in the spring of 1967, near a small township called Bonang, high in the East Gippsland hinterland. Almost a year later to the day, National Parks Technical Officer Colin Hutchinson picked up a road-killed potoroo at Bellbird, 75 km to the south. Although these animals were recognised as being different to their smaller cousin, the Long-nosed Potoroo, repeated searches initially failed to locate any more animals. However, in October 1978, traps set near to the Bellbird road-kill site captured not one, but a pair of these elusive creatures. This enabled the investigation that was happening at the time, of skulls and skins of potoroos from museums throughout Australia, to move up a gear or two. It was then possible to demonstrate that not only was this animal different on the outside (flesh and bone) but also on the inside, with distinctive blood chemistry and very different chromosomes (see page 55).

Modern rat-kangaroos and their decline

Of the 11 recognised species of modern rat-kangaroos, the Desert Rat-kangaroo and the Broad-faced Potoroo are presumed to be extinct. The last confirmed record of a Broad-faced Potoroo was from 1875 and that of the Desert Rat-kangaroo in 1935. As for the remaining species, the tale for the most part is not quite as dramatic or sorry, but nevertheless of concern. For example, free-ranging populations of the Burrowing Bettong are now restricted to four islands off the Western Australian coast and at Shark Bay on the mainland, where it has been re-introduced and resides behind a predator-proof fence. The Brush-tailed Bettong was, until recently, found only in a few small pockets in south-western Western Australia. Re-introduction programs have dramatically altered this situation (see Chapter 9). The Rufous Bettong has become extinct throughout the Riverina region along the Murray River in southern Australia and rarer in the northern New South Wales tablelands, although it is relatively common in the remaining parts of its range in Queensland. Gilbert’s Potoroo was believed extinct until 1994, when a very small colony was discovered in Two People’s Bay National Park, near Albany, Western Australia. However, despite concerted surveys it has not been found to reside elsewhere, making its ongoing status precarious at best.

The list of declining species goes on. The Long-footed Potoroo, described as recently as 1980, has been reported in south-eastern New South Wales, in addition to being found in eastern Victoria. But despite over a decade of searching, the only evidence of its existence in New South Wales has been from a few hairs from hair-sampling tubes and the occasional tooth in carnivore droppings. The ‘common’ Long-nosed Potoroo once occurred on several islands in Bass Strait, but is now present probably only on Flinders Island – surveys in 1998 on King Island were inconclusive. On the mainland, this species is extinct in South Australia, and patchily distributed in Victoria, New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland. The Northern Bettong, another ‘new’ species, is now confined to a small area of far north Queensland, where it is restricted by the narrow geographic limits of its habitat, at least some of which is subject to changing land management practices.

Finally, the very specialised Musky Rat-kangaroo has undergone a substantial range reduction due to overall decline of its rainforest habitat, although it remains locally common at some sites.

So, what are we now left with? The Tasmanian sub-species of the Long-nosed Potoroo seems to be relatively secure in its island home, as is the Tasmanian Bettong – although the range of both has altered and reduced since European settlement. The Rufous Bettong is now perhaps the most widely distributed member of the family, but has had, like all the other rat-kangaroos, a dramatic range reduction – though it remains quite common where it still occurs. Although the original geographic range of the Long-nosed Potoroo has become highly fragmented, the species is locally common in some conservation reserves in Victoria and the far south-east of New South Wales. It must be recognised, however, that the capacity to effectively monitor populations of these species is mostly limited, so identifying further declines before it is too late is problematic.

However, there have been some pluses to offset this sorry tale of minuses. The rediscovery in Western Australia of Gilbert’s Potoroo in late 1994 was followed, in early 1995, by the discovery of a previously unknown population of Long-footed Potoroos in the alpine and sub-alpine forests of north-eastern Victoria. Recovery programs for the Brush-tailed Bettong in both Western Australia and South Australia have been successful and a far-sighted recovery program to restore the Burrowing Bettong to the mainland of Western Australia and beyond is showing encouraging signs of success. But more of this story later.



Before European settlement, modern rat-kangaroos were distributed widely throughout the southern half of the continent. With the exception of the Musky Rat-kangaroo and the Northern Bettong in northern Queensland, most species were confined to latitudes south of about 20°S.

The arid and semi-arid parts of the continent supported four rat-kangaroo species, including those with the widest continental range (Burrowing Bettong and Brush-tailed Bettong), while the temperate/tropical east and south-east supported six species. Victoria, with a combination of Bassian and Eyrean habitats had six species, as did Queensland, which contains Bassian, Eyrean and Torresian habitats. Two tropical species (Musky Rat-kangaroo and Northern Bettong), two temperate species (Gilbert’s Potoroo and Long-footed Potoroo) and two arid/semi-arid species (Desert Rat-kangaroo and Broad-faced Potoroo) seem always to have had restricted distributions, so that only five species were widespread and apparently common.

Relatively few islands have supported extant populations of potoroids. However, some islands have been of great conservation value. For example, Bernier, Dorre and Barrow Islands for the Burrowing Bettong, and Tasmania for the Tasmanian Bettong.

Figure 2.1 Isoclines of distribution. The isoclines indicate historical distributions of rat-kangaroos. The number in each isocline represents the number of rat-kangaroo species known to have been present within the indicated distribution envelope. For most isocline boundaries, the outer

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