If you’re walking quietly through Australian bush this Easter you might get lucky – no chocolate eggs are likely to be hiding there but you could spot two little eyes peeking out of a burrow.
And if you got a closer look you would see a shy little critter with soft grey fur, a pointy nose, large rabbit-like ears, and a long, black-tipped tail. Despite having legs like a kangaroo, it gallops like a horse.
It is Australia’s own Greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis).
We have long known this valuable marsupial is endangered, which is a serious problem. Not only are bilbies important for regenerating soil and native plants, new research has shown they help whole ecosystems of smaller animals to survive.
Stuart Dawson, researcher from Murdoch University, got very lucky – with a lot of persistence.
For three years, he and his colleagues monitored 127 bilby burrows at seven sites in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia.
45 species other species use bilby burrows
They captured on camera more than 45 species of mammals, birds and reptiles either in the bilby burrows or around their entrance, as reported in the Journal of Zoology.
“While we couldn’t record why each species used the burrows,” Dawson says, “the diversity of species we captured is profound.
“It was apparent that bilbies are inadvertently providing benefits for a broader community. This was particularly evident after fire had swept through the area.”
With their burrows, the researchers suggest, the bilbies provide shade, cool loose soil, decaying leaves and insects which attract other animals – supporting a virtual ecosystem of wildlife.
“Bilbies are master engineers, capable of excavating multiple deep burrows within hours,” says Dawson.
“This research highlights, and builds on, previous research that shows how important burrowing species can be for other animals.”
Celebrate the bilby
This gives us more reason to celebrate bilbies, rather than bunnies, to raise awareness about them and their importance.
Bilbies have lived in Australia for millions of years. A hundred years ago, they could be found virtually everywhere, occupying 70 percent of this big island.
But soon after Europeans arrived, they started disappearing. Now they only inhabit about 20 percent of the country, with an estimated 10,000 bilbies sprinkled around parts of the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland.
Threats include habitat destruction and competition with introduced animals, including bunny rabbits.
Those fluffy tailed creatures were introduced by Europeans and their population rapidly exploded to a million. Cute as they are, they have destroyed Australia’s delicate ecosystems, wiping out native plants.
In fact, rabbits are considered Australia’s most destructive animal pest. Even one on a field can interfere with regeneration of native plant species, and their digging destroys the landscape.
Bilby: Ecosystem Engineer
Bilbies, on the other hand, dig multiple three metre spiral-shaped underground homes that would make any hobbit proud. These burrows provide cool storage for decomposing plants and seeds, helping to regenerate, rather than destroy, native plants and soil.
And now we know they are best friends to other birds and animals.
“The positive impact of digging mammals on nutrient cycling and water penetration is well known, but we are gaining a greater appreciation of the plethora of species that use burrows as well,” says Dawson.
“Losing an important ecosystem engineer like the bilby would have cascading impacts on the landscape.”
You can help protect these little critters by supporting Queensland’s ‘Save the Bilby’ project. And when you celebrate Easter, indulge in bilby chocolate to commemorate our homegrown Aussie hero.
Check out some of the animals who visited the bilby burrows. Images provided by Stuart Dawson.
This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.
Originally published by Cosmos as Bilbies are more than Easter icons
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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