Australian Native Animals

The Woylie

The family name of the woylie is Potoroidae. Potoroidae includes potoroos and bettongs. The woylie is also known as the brush-tailed bettong. The other four bettong species are the Rufous Bettong, the Burrowing Bettong (which is endangered), the Tasmanian Bettong and the Northern Bettong. Most of the mainland of Australia south of the tropics was once home to the bettong. This included the arid and semi-arid zones of Western Australia, Northern Territory, New South Wales and Victoria. Now, they are found only in Western Australia in the Tutanning Nature Reserve, the Perup/Lake Muir area and in the Dryandra Woodland.

Brush tailed BettongCredit:

Woylies are small marsupials. Like their distant relatives, the kangaroo, they hop on their back legs. They belong to the rat-kangaroo family. For preference they like open forests and woodlands with a low understorey of tussock grasses or woody scrub. Woylies can carry sticks and leaves in their prehensile tail and their name comes from the indigenous Nyoongar word meaning 'stick carrier'. The Nyoongar people inhabited south west Australia for many centuries before white settlement. The woylie builds elaborate nests with the sticks and leaves. These dome-shaped structures are usually formed under grass trees or other bushes.

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Woylies are territorial and typically maintain at least half a metre between individuals although they are sometimes seen close together. Both sexes generally frequent distinct individual home ranges which include a nesting and a feeding area.

The woylie weighs around 1.3kg. The front legs are powerful and strong clawed forefeet are adapted for digging. The upper surfaces are a yellowish-grey with paler pelage underneath. There is a distinctive black brush at the end of the tail.

The animal is nocturnal and its main diet is underground fungi (native truffles). Seeds, tubers and bulbs are also ingested but they do not eat green plant material nor do they drink water as such getting what they need from their food.

Fungal spores pass through the woylie and are dispersed in the scats or droppings. Fungi plays a role in assisting plants to grow, so the animal plays a vital role in the re-establishment of native vegetation. They also disperse and store seeds which also helps in the dispersal and regeneration of vegetation. They bury leaf litter and recycle nutrients. The soil surface is broken up by their diggings allowing water to penetrate.

Research done on soil turnover over a three year period showed that each woylie was responsible for shifting an average of 4.8 tonnes of earth per year. This significant soil interaction does not happen in areas where the woylie no longer lives.

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With good conditions the woylie breeds throughout the year, having up to three offspring in a twelve month period. Even through drier summers it tends to continue breeding. Sexual maturity is reached at six months of age by females and 9 to 12 months by males. Like all marsupials, the young are born very tiny and undeveloped.

The gestation period is about 21 days. One young is born and claws its way to the mother's pouch. It attaches itself to a nipple and stays in the pouch for about 13 weeks. Pouch life averages 90 days and the young remain with the mother until its younger sibling leaves the pouch. In the wild woylies live from 4 to 6 years and some at Karakamia Wildlife Sanctuary have lived for up to eight years.

Foxes have almost wiped out the woylie. A program for poisoning foxes was started and did much to reduce the fox population. The toxic component in the bait occurs naturally in plants that the woylie feeds on but they are immune to the poison. Introduced species are not. The woylie was even taken off the critically endangered list in 1996.

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However with the reduction in fox numbers, the feral cat population increased and woylies were again being decimated. It is thought that disease also affected the animals. The general plan now is to release the woylie onto small islands or into fenced areas. This allows for the exclusion of introduced predators.

Apart from the fox and the feral cat, habitat destruction and alteration, competition from domestic and feral herbivores and altered fire regimes have all played a part in reducing the numbers and distribution of woylies.

In 2001, there were approximately 40,000 woylies. This was reduced by 75% by 2006. The distribution pattern is still much the same. Under IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Animals) criteria, the woylie is once again classified as endangered (as at January 2008).