City livin’: urban neighbours – why these tough mammals deserve your vote

People say that city folks don’t know their neighbours like non-city folks do. This could be true when it comes to our wildlife neighbours. You may be surprised to know that many Australian mammals call our cities home.

There are 17 species of small, insect-eating bats (often called microbats) living alongside humans in the greater Melbourne region alone. In fact, if you live in any Australian city, you have microbat neighbours.

City-living is not for everyone, however, and this is especially so for wildlife. That’s because urbanisation generally leads to modified waterways, water sources that are more polluted, more sealed surfaces and buildings, more infrastructure (e.g., roads, railways, powerlines), more noise and light pollution, more waste, more introduced flora and fauna (e.g., dogs, cats, rats), and more limited and isolated native vegetation.

These changes translate to the loss of natural food sources and shelters, limited connectivity between habitat patches, disrupted breeding behaviours, and a myriad of dangers that can seriously injure or kill wildlife (such as collisions with cars and trains, electrocution, predation, poisons). Not great, is it?

Given these hostile conditions, only tough and flexible mammals can survive in cities. These ‘super-mammals’ tend to be all-rounders that can adapt to different conditions and resource availabilities.

While the cities can provide alternative shelter, food and water sources, urban mammals play an extremely important role in maintaining the unique urban ecosystem.

Photograph of a white-striped free-tailed bat on a black background
White-striped free-tailed bat. Credit: Michael Pennay (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Urban environments have not traditionally been regarded as ‘pristine’ wildlife habitat, but urban ecology studies are increasingly uncovering the potential of urban environments as habitat for wildlife including threatened mammals, and strategic efforts to protect and improve wildlife friendly areas in cities are increasing. This is important, as more than 90% of the Australian population is expected to be living in urban areas by 2050.

Let’s meet some of our urban mammalian neighbours with superpowers.

Grey-headed flying-foxes camping in a tree
Grey-headed flying-fox camp in Doveton, Victoria. Credit: Linda Moon

Australia’s largest bat – the grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) – feeds on nectar and fruits. With adults able to fly more than 120km overnight, they are THE long-distance pollinators/seed disperser of Australia who keep Australian forests healthy. They congregate in the thousands at camps throughout eastern Australia including in urban areas, with individual bats regularly moving between camps like backpackers moving between hostels. Backpackers with extremely important roles!

Another resident of most Australian cities is the white-striped free-tailed bat (Austronomus australis). This microbat has long narrow wings that enables it to fly up to 80 km/hour. With a big appetite for flying insects (some can eat up to half their body weight a night!) they play an important role controlling insect populations and keeping pests at bay.

If you live on the east coast of Australia, you likely live with common/eastern ringtail possums (Pseudocheirus peregrinus). If you live in a city in the southwestern corner of Australia (such as Busselton or Albany) you are very lucky to be living with Critically Endangered western ringtail possums (Pseudocheirus occidentalis). These climbing acrobats are an important food source for many native predators in cities. This sounds grim, but it is a very important role in an ecosystem. They are also the only possums where dads share the caring duties of their kids with the mums – go ringtails!

Photo of a common/eastern ringtail possum in a tree
Common/eastern ringtail possum. Credit: Kaori Yokochi

Rabbit-sized hoppers, the quenda (Isoodon fusciventer), can be found in urban areas in Perth and its surrounds. Their digging to uncover anything from worms and grubs, to roots and truffles, helps aerate the soil, mix in organic matters, and let the water penetrate, all of which help make the soil more fertile – a very important service, particularly in southwest of Australia, where the soil is one of the oldest in the world. Being a truffle connoisseur, quendas also disperse spores of native fungi, an integral part of healthy Australian ecosystem.

Secretive, sleek and resourceful, the rakali (Hydromys chrysogaster) hunt a wide range of aquatic and terrestrial animals in city rivers, lakes and estuaries. Found in all Australian capital cities, rakalis have learnt to prey on invasive species such as carps, house mice, and even cane toads.

Photo of a rakali near water
Water rat (rakali). Credit: Joshua Prieto/Getty Images

Even with their amazing adaptability, our urban mammals are under immense pressure from the rapid rate of urbanisation and continued loss of natural habitat. Urgent actions are needed to ensure these urban mammals can keep living in cities as our neighbours. So let’s get to know our neighbours better, and vote for urban mammals!

You can find more information about the voting process here.

The nominees are:

Common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), all Australian states and territories

They can eat anything from eucalyptus leaves to bird eggs, and can withstand both the sweaty summers of the tropical north and the freezing winters of Tasmania!

Common/eastern ringtail possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus), eastern Australia and Tasmania

They forage at night, then while resting during the day they excrete what they have eaten in the form of soft faecal pellets (poo) that they then eat, ensuring each meal is consumed twice.

Eastern grey kangaroo (Macropus giganteus), eastern Australia

They are the second largest marsupial in the world, with home ranges of up to 5km.

Eastern quoll (Dasyurus viverrinus), Tasmania

They come in two different colours, caramel and dark chocolate, both of which can occur within the same litter!

Grey-headed flying-fox (Pteropus policephalus), south-east coast of Australia

Affectionately known as “fruit bats”, they are Australia’s largest flying mammal.

Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), eastern and southern Australia

Males have sharp spurs on their hind feet that are connected to a venom gland in their leg, which they use as weapons to fight other males as they contest breeding rights.

Quenda (Isoodon fusciventer), south-western Australia

Their digging to uncover their food helps aerate the soil, mix in organic matters, and let the water penetrate, all of which help make the soil more fertile.

Sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps), northern and eastern Australia

They use a gliding membrane, which extends from their fifth finger to their ankle, to glide up to 50m.

Tasmanian pademelon (Thylogale billardierii), Tasmania

Also known as the rufous-bellied pademelon, they have developed heavier and bushier fur than their northern relatives.

Water rat (Hydromys chrysogaster), all Australian states and territories

Adult water rats hold culinary masterclasses to teach their young how to open freshwater mussels – one of their favourite foods. 

Western ringtail possum (Pseudocheirus occidentalis), south-western Australia

They have long, thin tails with a white tip that helps them move through the trees and carry nesting material.

White-striped free-tailed bat (Austronomus australis), central and southern mainland Australia

Their echolocation allows them to ‘see’ in the dark further than any other Australian bat.

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