Name: Eastern bettong (Bettongia gaimardi), also known as the Tasmanian bettong or Eastern rat-kangaroo
Size: Head and body length approximately 32 cm, plus a tail of about 33 cm; weight about 1.5 kg
Diet: Mainly truffles, also some fruit, seeds, and invertebrates
Habitat: Dry woodlands and forests of southeastern Australia
Conservation status: Now extinct on the mainland but still secure in Tasmania.
Superpower: Expert truffle hunter and soil engineer
The Eastern bettong is a small and graceful macropod with a slender body and a long and slightly brushy tail. Seeing one for the first time, the physical feature that might impress you most is its very long feet. You would quickly note, as well, the amazing speed with which it moves as those feet propel it through long elegant bounds covering metres at a time.
The Eastern bettong needs to be able to travel effortlessly and at high speed around its woodland habitat – not just to escape predators, but also because its food is patchy, scattered, and hard to find. This means each animal must range over a large area each night to find enough to eat.
The bettong feeds on native truffles. It finds the fungi by their intense odours and digs them from as deep as 30 centimetres underground. For this digging job, the animal uses its forepaws, which may look inconspicuous but, armed with long claws, are surprisingly powerful.
The truffles themselves are symbiotic with tree roots and help their host plants gain nutrients and water from dry and infertile soils. By eating truffles, the Eastern bettong disperses their spores and thereby maintains the diversity and abundance of truffle species. In this way, the Eastern bettong forms a crucial ecological link that is essential for healthy woodland ecosystems.
The digging activity of the Eastern bettong is also ecologically valuable. It loosens the soil and improves water retention, and it mixes soil and organic matter to improve soil fertility. The holes left by bettongs trap and hold leaf litter and seeds, creating rich micro-habitat patches for invertebrates. A forest that loses its Eastern bettongs becomes a much poorer place.
The Eastern bettong has another special skill. It builds beautiful spherical nests on the ground, made from grass and lined inside with fibrous bark. It gathers nesting material with its forepaws, bundles it up, and transports the bundle in a curl of its long tail.
This animal stays in its nest for safety and comfort through the day. Each bettong maintains several nests scattered over its range so that if it is disturbed from one, it can immediately flee to another one, using its speed to throw off pursuit.
The Eastern bettong once occurred over a large area of southeastern Australia, from Tasmania to the Queensland border. It is now extinct on the mainland because of predation by the red fox but remains widespread in eastern Tasmania.
One of the best things that we could do for the woodlands and forests of Eastern mainland Australia would be to find a way to return Eastern bettongs to them.
Originally published by Cosmos as Eastern bettong: the ultimate native truffle hunter
Chris Johnson is Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Tasmania. He does research on the ecology and conservation of threatened species, especially marsupials, and the impacts and management of invasive species.
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