It’s fair to say this little wonder has had a great run, and we’re sad to see it go. It may be back from the dead in the wild, but here in the Australian Mammal of the Year competition we won’t be seeing more of it until next year. Gilbert’s potoroo made it to the final five but missed out – by a whisker! – on making it through another round of voting.
Here in the newsroom we’re into the nail-biting territory. You know the drill: you’ve just 22 hours to vote for your pick in the Top 4, after which we’ll remove the lowest-rated mammal, clear the tallies and announce our Final 3 at 12pm AEST Monday 22 August. We’re at the pointy end folks – get friends, family and random people on the bus involved to help your favourite mammal take its place in the sun.
Goodbye Gilbert’s potoroo – we love you!
Names: Gilbert’s potoroo (Potorous gilbertii). Noongar name(s): Ngilgyte, Ngilkat, Garlgyte
Size: Head and body length 27cm, tail length 21cm, weight around 1kg
Diet: About 94% truffle-like fungi and a small percentage of invertebrate and plant material
Habitat: Dense, long-unburnt coastal heath on the south coast of Western Australia east of Albany and two offshore islands.
Conservation status: Critically Endangered – only 100–120 individuals known alive.
Superpower: After missing from the records for 120 years and thought extinct, it has come “back from the dead”.
Have you heard of Lazarus species? Named after the man in the Bible story who Jesus is said to have raised from the dead, these are species that reappear after being thought extinct. The story of Gilbert’s potoroo is one of Australia’s most extraordinary.
Gilbert’s potoroo is a small kangaroo-like marsupial with thick, soft brown-grey fur, a long, slender slightly downward curving nose, and forepaws with powerful claws for digging for the truffle-like fungi that make up 94% of its diet. John Gould scientifically described it in 1841 from a specimen and notes provided by the naturalist John Gilbert (hence the name). Gilbert reported that it occupied the “spearwood and rank vegetation surrounding swamps and running streams” and was “the constant companion” of the quokka (the smiling marsupial of Rottnest Island selfie fame).
It was recorded a few more times until the 1870s, and then disappeared. By 1909 it was thought to be extinct – gone, apparently forever, with very little known about it.
Surveys searching for Gilbert’s potoroo along the south coast of WA in 1975-76 caught many quokkas – but no potoroos. In 1994, a team surveying for quokkas at Two Peoples Bay spent over a week without trapping a single one, but then unexpectedly caught an unfamiliar species that turned out to be the supposedly extinct Gilbert’s potoroo!
The excitement was intense, but so too was the fear. Gilbert’s potoroo was living in dense, very long-unburnt vegetation – and a single catastrophic bushfire could wipe out the small rediscovered population. Attempts at captive breeding were unsuccessful, so from 2005 the focus shifted to carefully creating “safe haven” populations using Two Peoples Bay animals as founders. Over the next few years, populations were established on Bald Island and in a fenced enclosure at Waychinicup National Park.
In 2015, the feared bushfire, ignited by lightning, incinerated over 90% of Gilbert’s potoroo habitat at Two Peoples Bay leaving only a handful of survivors. After the fire another “safe haven” population was created on Middle Island off Esperance, but for the species to have the best chance of long-term survival it’s critical that a new mainland population is established urgently.
The location for this new population will require a year-round supply of truffle-like fungi, thick vegetation for shelter, adequate control of foxes and cats, and the capacity for substantial population expansion.
As an almost exclusive truffle-eater, Gilbert’s potoroo plays a critical role in ecosystem health and the impact of losing it on vegetation communities is not yet understood.
We’ve been given a second chance to protect this beautiful species and enable it to continue its work digging the soil, eating truffles and spreading their spores, thereby helping to protect the health of its habitat into the future. With a known population of only 100–120 individuals, it is the world’s rarest marsupial and needs all the help we can give it to ensure its survival.
Gilbert’s potoroo has almost been lost once already – let’s make sure it never goes extinct for real.
We started with more than 300 mammals; here are the final four:
Mountain pygmy possum (Burramys parvus)
This alpine darling might be hibernating, but that didn’t stop its ascent to the top of the Hello Possums category and into the running for Mammal of the Year.
Dingo (Canis dingo or Canis familiaris)
Australia’s charismatic but controversial native dog took out the top spot in the Rock Stars category in a landslide with a whopping 35% of the vote!
Think hard about your choice because you can only vote once per round!
Southern bent-wing bat (Miniopterus orianae bassanii)
An incredible surge of last-minute voting in the Brilliant Bats category saw a surprising switcheroo; the southern bent-wing bat swooping ahead of the spectacled flying-fox and into the Top 10 with 36% of the votes.
Rakali or Australian water rat (Hydromys chrysogaster)
The wondrous water rat emerged victorious, and without tough competition from the rest of the Rollicking Rodents, carrying a healthy 32% of the votes across the finishing line.
How does voting work?
“But how does voting work?” you may ask. Don’t worry, it’s super simple.
Voting has now opened for the Top 4 (from 12:00pm AEST Sunday 21 August) and will be open for 22 hours – closing tomorrow, Monday 22 August, at 10:00am AEST.
Then, at 12:00pm AEST we’ll announce the mammal that has received the least votes and has been booted out of the running.
We’ll set the tally back to zero and open up voting for the Final 3 anew.
Each day we’ll whittle away at the list of our most marvellous mammals until the last two left standing are announced on Tuesday 23 August.
With voting open for two days, we’ll finally put the debate to rest (for this year at least) and crown Australia’s Mammal of the Year on Thursday 25 August!
Vote for your pick in the Top 4 here:
Imma Perfetto is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Science with Honours in Science Communication from the University of Adelaide.
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