Marsupial marvels return: Brush-Tailed bettongs make a comeback in Southern Australia

Brush-tailed bettongs, adorable marsupials resembling mini kangaroos, are making a comeback in southern Australia after 100 years.
Kavita Verma
On Yorke Peninsula in southern Australia, where they were reintroduced in August 2021, brush-tailed bettongs are thriving.
On Yorke Peninsula in southern Australia, where they were reintroduced in August 2021, brush-tailed bettongs are thriving.

WWF Australia / think Mammoth 

After more than a century of disappearance, cute marsupials that resemble "mini kangaroos on steroids'' are making a comeback in southern Australia. The active brush-tailed bettong (Bettongia penicillata), also known as yalgiri by the local Narungga People, used to hop and dart across a large portion of the Australian mainland. 

Their population has decreased over the past two centuries as a result of habitat degradation, fox and feral cat predation, and other factors. Fewer than a thousand still exist, mostly in isolated areas of Western Australia, sanctuaries, and islands. But now, the southern tiny marsupials have returned after being reintroduced by environmentalists.

Mini kangaroos on steroids

"They're like a little, ankle-sized kangaroo — a mini kangaroo on steroids if you like," Derek Sandow, an ecologist with the Northern and Yorke Landscape Board in South Australia, told the French News Agency (AFP). "They've got really powerful hind legs, they carry their young in their pouch, like a kangaroo does, but they're only a kilo and a half (three pounds)."

Despite their cuteness, brush-tailed bettongs are cruel to their young. If a predator pursues them, a mother carrying a newborn in its pouch will toss it out to divert its attention, sacrificing the joey so she can flee. "It sounds like horrible parenting," Sandow told AFP. 

Brush-tailed bettongs breed continuously, and females can give birth to three young each year, spending up to 98 days in the pouch. "They can basically have their baby ready to go in their back pocket and then replace it," Sandow said.

Reintroduction efforts and promising results

Since August 2021, Sandow has worked with wildlife experts to tag and restore 120 brush-tailed bettongs to the Yorke Peninsula, close to Adelaide, hoping the population would rebound. 

The most recent release was arranged with Noongar and Narungga Traditional Owners, and the newcomers were translocated from neighboring Wedge Island and the Upper Warren region of Western Australia, according to WWF Australia.

According to recent monitoring, the small, fluffy critters are thriving on the peninsula. When the researchers captured 85 brush-tailed bettongs, they discovered that 40 percent lacked tags, indicating that they were born after the reintroduction. They caught nearly all of the females with offspring in their pouches. "We're getting great results," Sandow told ABC Radio Adelaide.

Sandow said that if their populations recover, these tiny marsupials could considerably reshape and enhance the landscape and added, "A little bettong can move tons of soil per year. So they dig in the ground, they create little micro habitats for water infiltration for seeds to establish." Brush-tailed bettongs never drink water and avoid green plants, preferring fungi, bulbs, seeds, insects, and resin.

To keep track of brush-tailed bettongs, the researchers have an unexpected trick up their sleeve. "Most native fauna — and the yalgi is no different — are a sucker for peanut butter," Sandow told ABC Radio Adelaide. "When we're actually trying to trap these animals to do health checks or do population sampling, peanut butter is our secret weapon."

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