This planet is full of animals. Many of them we are familiar with and
start learning at a young age. That's an elephant and this is a zebra.
No, that's not a dog, but a wolf. However, there are a great number of
animals that most of us have never even heard of. They fill the
strangest corners of the world and are often fascinating creatures. One
of them is the Woylie or Bush-Tailed Bettong. This is a small
marsupial, that like many marsupials, lives in the land "down under".
Australia is home to most of the world's marsupials, and they are a
fascinating group, the woylie is no different.
What is a Woylie?
A woylie or bush-tailed bettong is a small marsupial. It looks much like a rodent (maybe a mole or rat) with a tail that curls. With hind legs that are longer then its front ones it can often be seen hopping in a fashion similar to kangaroos (a distant relative of the woylie). This creature is one that often blends in with its natural surroundings. Its fur is a combination of tans, browns, and grays with a black section in its slightly bushy tail. It has a very rodent look with a pointy face, big eyes, and cute little ears, but instead it belongs in the marsupial family.
Habitat and Behavior.
The woylie's territory used to cover most of southern Australia. It could be seen in most fields and had a huge range. However, decreasing population sizes have dramatically reduced the numbers of the woylie. They are now only seen in small areas mostly in southwestern Australia.
These animals are solitary and are only seen together when the mothers are still raising their young. They nest around and under logs, rocks, and bushes. To make their nest they dig shallow holes and then use their tails to collect grass, twigs, and leaves to line it with.
Useful Little Helpers.
While many don't realize it, the woylie in the area are important to the environment and the current ecosystem. Digging their homes moves a lot of soil. As they search for food sources such as roots, fungi, insects, and seeds they move even more soil around. All this digging moves leaf matter downward into the soil, allows more water to get in, and disperses seeds and fungi spores. The forests often thrive with the help of these little critters.
These creatures used to abide all over southern Australia. A number of issues have caused their numbers to die down. First, as with so many animals, the settling and developing of the land reduced much of their natural habitat and dramatically reduced their numbers. Second, Europeans brought with them foxes (among other animals). This new predator in the ecosystem helped to cause rapid decreases in their population. In fact, their numbers got dangerously low to about 2,000 animals. Because the population of the woylie became so small conservation efforts began. Populations were reintroduced to areas that they used to live. An effort was made to poison much of the fox population so that its numbers were drastically reduced. The poisons chosen were ones that couldn't effect the woylie because they were made from fungi that the woylie naturally consumes. With these two major conservation efforts the population of the woylies grew and was looking really good. In 1996 they were removed from the threatened species list because it was believed that they were doing really well.
In 2001 the woylie population was estimated at, at least 40,000 and things were looking so well it was believed that conservation efforts had worked well and their numbers would continue to thrive. Since that time as much as 70-90% of the population has died off. Researchers aren't completely sure why this is happening, but they have a few theories.
With the number of foxes reduced dramatically a new predator has become a problem. The fox population used to control the feral cat (wild cat) population. Now with the foxes gone these cats have become a major threat to the woylies and have been hunting them.
In addition to the woylies having to deal with feral cats as a major predator now it is also believed that a disease has entered the population. Many scientists are looking for the reason behind this disease, it is believed that the major issue here is the fact that the lowered numbers in the population have dramatically limited the gene pool. When the population becomes limited it is more likely that diseases that only effected a few become more prevalent in the population over time and without new genetic material (from sources outside the tight knit population) the disease can take over so that it effects the majority of the population. Because there are no woylies that are outside the tight knit population it could mean very dangerous things for the future of the woylies. This is all just speculation at this point and research is being done to test these theories.
Scientists continue to research the issues facing the woylie population with the hopes of coming up with some sort of solution. However, with disease effecting more and more woylies there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of hope. They are trying to encourage population growth and the expansion of the habitat as well as trying to come up with a solution and cure for the disease that seems intent on destroying this animal. Time will only tell.
However, at the rate that the woylies are dying off it won't be long before the only woylies left in the world are those in captivity. This could mean bad things for the forests they call home and a world with less and less species diversification. While many people around the world have never heard of this furry little friend, and few would bat an eye if it were gone forever, it should mean something to everyone!