Long-nosed potoroo: putting the “oooo!” in potoroo

Name(s): Long-nosed potoroo (Potorous tridactylus), “potoroo” is an interpretation of the Dharuk word “badaru”.

Size: 520 – 650 mm total length; 0.6 – 1.6 kg weight

Diet: Omnivorous; mostly underground fungi, tubers & arthropods, with some seeds, fruit & vegetation thrown in for good measure

Habitat/Range: Coastal heath and sclerophyll woodlands, generally with thick groundcover or understorey. Patchy distribution in south-eastern mainland Australia, from south-east Queensland through to South Australian border. Relatively common in Tasmania.

Conservation status: IUCN Near Threatened, northern and southern mainland populations listed as Vulnerable.

Superpower/Fun Fact: Long-nosed potoroos are phenomenal truffle hunters, often digging deep in search of their favoured underground treat!

Photo of a long-nosed potoroo standing up
Long-nosed potoroo captured on a camera trap. Credit: David Hamilton

In the words of Charles Darwin, the long-nosed potoroo is “an animal, as big as a rabbit, but with the figure of a kangaroo”. My own preferred description runs more along the lines of “Potoroos – 50% oooo”. I think this captures their nature a bit better, in addition to perfectly mimicking the “oooo!” sound most people make on encountering these delightful marsupials for the first time. However, Darwin’s words remain a pretty apt description for these pocket-sized macropods, which resemble a combination of their much larger kangaroo cousins and the more size-matched bandicoots. Indeed, their habits also resemble a combination of the two – while their speediest method of locomotion is a kangaroo-esque hop, their usual foraging method involves digging around in the soil for fungi and invertebrates.

Long-nosed potoroos remain a somewhat underappreciated member of Australia’s remarkable marsupial fauna, even to the point that there’s a glaring error in their scientific name! Their species name, tridactylus, means three-toed. But the species has four toes… This mistake traces back to the 1700s, when Surgeon-General White’s ‘Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales’ referred to the species as being three-toed, counting the conjoined second and third digits as one. The error was recorded in perpetuity as part of their scientific name, confounding taxonomists to this day.

Black and white photo of a long-nosed potoroo close to the camera
Long-nosed potoroo captured on a camera trap. Credit: David Hamilton

In a similar story to many of Australia’s smaller marsupials, long-nosed potoroos experienced widespread declines and range contractions on mainland Australia after Europeans arrived.

However, the species remains relatively common in their Tasmanian stronghold, where they have been somewhat protected by the absence of invasive foxes and the presence of fellow Mammal of the Year competitor, the Tasmanian devil. The presence of devils seems to buffer potoroos against the worst effects of invasive feline predators, meaning they can still thrive in Tasmanian habitats where they might otherwise have been vulnerable. Tasmanian potoroos are also much more likely to sport a stylish white tail tip – the proportion of individuals possessing this accessory increases from zero in the northern end of their mainland range to around 80% in Tasmania. As the old saying goes, “if you’re a Tassie potoroo, the white tail tips for you”.

Photo of a long-nosed potoroo during the day
Long-nosed potoroo. Credit: Whitepointer/Getty Images

On mainland Australia particularly, potoroos remain vulnerable. One species, the broad-faced potoroo, has already been lost to extinction, while two others (Gilbert’s and long-footed potoroos) are severely threatened. Control of feral predators remains critical to potoroo persistence. Complementing this, protection of habitat is also key. One of the best ways to conserve habitat for potoroos is through retaining relatively dense understories in areas of bushland where they are found, in addition to helping maintain passages of vegetation connectivity between them. Potoroos thrive on being able to create protected runways (poto-runs?) through dense vegetation, allowing them to move safely through the landscape. The more widely they’re able to do this, the better they can fare in the face of introduced predators. And more potoroos in the world can only be a good thing.

Let this unassuming fungi-munching delight of a marsupial be your Australian Mammal of the Year 2023, and you’re sure to be as filled with “oooo!” as a potoroo!

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