The Boodie Rat

The burrowing bettong or boodie rat is one of a group known collectively as rat-kangaroos. The other members of the group are the potoroos and musky rat-kangaroo. The latter is the only living example of Hypsiprimnodontidae. The rat-kangaroos typically retain more primitive traits such as a partly prehensile tail, simpler stomach and all four limbs more similar in size. These little fellows are just as inclined to bound as they are to hop. The tail may be used to hold twigs and grasses when nest-building.

The dentition is also clearly different from that of the kangaroo. The rat-kangaroos are more buck-toothed, the first incisors are larger than the second and third and the upper canines are well-developed rather than missing. The premolar is large and blade-like.

The burrowing bettong or boodie has the scientific name of Bettongia lesueur (Lesueur's bettong). It is considered extinct on the mainland of Australia although it was once widespread across the rangelands. It occupied various habitats from spinifex grasslands, mallee and shrublands. Its habitat on the islands where it can still be found consists of low heath, scrub and spinifex. A rocky substrate prevents it burrowing and keeps it away from some areas. Typical forage country has above average canopy cover and tallish ground cover. Introduced domestic animals, especially sheep, remove this cover and allow easier predation by foxes and cats.

The boodie has been introduced to Faure and Boodie Islands and to Francoise Peron National Park but the success of these practices is largely unknown. Black rats caused its extinction on Boodie Island for a time until the rats were eradicated.

It can be found on Dorre and Bernier Islands in the Shark Bay area of Western Australia and also on Barrow Island in the Pilbara. This doesn't mean the little creature is accessible to the general public. Dorre Island has no public access, Bernier can only be accessed by boat during the day (and the boodie is largely nocturnal) and Barrow Island has restricted access due to the mining operations carried out there.

Boodies exist in some reserves where it is hoped to re-establish populations. Barna Mia, in the Dryandra woodlands, has some resident boodies and runs 'viewing sessions' daily but there are really few opportunities to view this little fellow in the wild.

Boodies weigh around 1.25kg. The head and back are a grizzled pale brown-grey to yellow with an indistinct pale hip stripe. The ears are the shortest and most rounded of all the bettong species. The undersurfaces vary from creamy white to pale grey-brown. The top part of the tail is black with a white tail tip. The long claws are slender and curved.

Unlike most of the rat-kangaroos, it eats few if any fungi, preferring roots and tubers. It also consumes some leaves, seeds, stems and bulbs. Native yams and quandong fruit would have been eaten on the mainland and, on its islands, it scavenges for carrion on the shores.

The little crates and pits caused by the digging of the boodies increases the permeability of the soil, trapping vegetation and seeds that add to the humus of an area. Species such as these that modify their environment by their actions are called 'ecosystem engineers'. Hard-hooved ungulates compact the soil but, until their disappearance, the soil would be opened up again by bandicoots and bettongs.

The bettong breeds continuously but if conditions are not good, embryonic diapause comes into play. Youngsters remain in the pouch for about 4 months. The animals are sexually mature at 7 to 8 months.

At one time the boodie was the most widespread of all the potoroos, with its range extending from Western Australia and the Northern Territory across into western New South Wales, south-west Queensland and north-west Victoria. With luck, these new Noah's Ark islands will ensure the survival of the burrowing bettong.