Name: Northern bettong (Bettongia tropica)
Size: 1-1.5 kg, with a body length of ~30 cm and a slightly longer tail.
Diet: Fungal specialist, with the fruiting bodies of ectomycorrhizal fungi (truffles!) being their primary food source. The tasty tubers of cockatoo grass (Alloteropsis semialata) are also an important resource – particularly in the dry season – while a variety of other roots, tubers, seeds (and even invertebrates) are also eaten.
Habitat/range: Once recorded as far south as Rockhampton in central Queensland, northern bettongs are now restricted to a narrow band of wet sclerophyll forest and open woodland in the Wet Tropics of north-east Queensland.
Conservation status: Endangered.
Superpower/fun fact: Northern bettongs have quite the refined palate, using their super-charged sense of smell to seek out their most favoured fine-dining foods. But they also harbour notable talent when it comes to design and construction — northern bettongs gather bundles of fine vegetation with their prehensile tail to build their nest shelters.
Northern bettongs, the Queensland-cousin of the more widely known (albeit similarly endangered) brush-tailed bettong (Bettongia penicillata), are amongst a group of species colloquially referred to as ‘rat-kangaroos’ owing to their size and appearance. This nocturnal, petite-sized macropod flaunts a unique hairstyle, with a mowhawk black crest adorning the end of its long, slender tail; a standout feature when compared to the more commonly sighted, but comparatively bare-tailed, rufous bettong.
Northern bettongs are talented gardeners, and help disperse fungal spores while fossicking for their favourite foods. These fungi grow on the roots of trees, helping their host access a range of nutrients from the soil. Through promoting fungi growth across the landscape, northern bettongs are helping to nurture forest health. It is because of this role in ecosystem health that northern bettongs are amongst those species referred to as ‘ecosystem engineers’.
Under ideal conditions, northern bettongs can produce up to three young per year. As a marsupial, they give birth to an underdeveloped ‘jellybean’ joey, which courageously crawls through its mother’s fur to seek out the comfortable confines of her pouch. The joey will remain here for around 100 days, before vacating the pouch and leaving it ready for the next occupant. But this begs the question… with such high breeding potential, why are they now endangered?
The tall, open forests supporting a grassy understorey are key habitat for this species; a habitat maintained through regular fire. The loss of traditional burning practices across large areas of the bettong’s range has promoted the growth of woody shrubs and rainforest species, transitioning the once-open forests to a much more captured landscape. And if the loss of prime real estate (and subsequent housing crisis) hadn’t made things hard enough for the bettongs, their once happy homes have been infiltrated by feral cats, pigs and cattle – perpetrators of predation, competition and further habitat degradation.
Over the past 20 years, only two remaining northern bettong populations were known to persist, supporting a total population size of around 1,000 individuals – meaning there are now fewer Northern bettongs remaining than the high-profile giant panda! A bold plan, many years in the making, has recently seen the re-establishment of a third population of northern bettongs. In a first-of-its-kind for the species, northern bettongs have been translocated into a landscape-scale, feral predator-free exclosure. By restoring habitat, returning good fire, removing ferals, and the ongoing implementation of innovative conservation efforts, the future holds hope for these truffle-loving treasures.
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