Bush rat: native rodents reclaiming their territory

Name: Bush rat (Rattus fuscipes)

Size: 65g to 225g and about 16cm in length, the tail is a similar length to the body, if not slightly shorter.

Diet: As omnivores, bush rats will eat various plant materials including seeds, fruits and nectar, as well as fungi and arthropods.

Habitat/range: Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, typically in coastal heathland and forests with dense understories.

Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern.

Fun fact/superpower: When bush rats can remain common, they help ward off invasion by introduced competitors like the black rat.

Photograph of a bush rat
Bush rat (Rattus fuscipes) in notophyll rainforest at Curramore Wildlife Sanctuary, Blackall Range, Southeast Queensland, Australia, an Australian Wildlife Conservancy reserve protecting a mozaic of rainforest and wet and dry sclerophyll forests, and their wildlife. Credit: AWC

With such a diverse suite of native mammals that call this continent home, our more “common” species are often overlooked and underappreciated, so I’m here to give the humble bush rat some time in the limelight.

As omnivores, bush rats will dabble with whatever is available. They provide a number of ecological services, with their feeding behaviours facilitating seed and spore dispersal, and pollination. The species is nocturnal, laying-low during the day under dense vegetation and logs, or even in short burrows.

Despite the bush rat’s “commonness”, the species is missing from parts of its former range, especially adjacent to urban areas where habitat fragmentation and predation from cats and foxes has led to their absence. Where the bush rats have gone missing, they have often been replaced by introduced species such as the European black rat (Rattus rattus), who have a devastating track record for environmental impacts.

However, when given the chance to make a comeback, the native bush rats have shown that they can hold their ground.

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At North Head Sanctuary in Sydney, bush rats have proven their mettle by reclaiming this territory from introduced black rats. Whilst translocation initiatives primarily focus on restoring populations of threatened species, the reintroduction of the bush rat to North Head represents one of the few examples where a common species gets to play the main character.  Recent surveys conducted by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy in 2023 resulted in more than 100 individual bush rats captured, compared to only two black rat captures. Considering that the black rat was previously the most abundant small mammal at the site, the bush rats have shown that when our common species can remain common, they can help ward off invasion by introduced competitors.

After helping to control the threat of black rats, the humble bush rat has also paved the way for further small mammal species to be reintroduced to North Head, serving as an example of how our common species can have a big impact.

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