You may know this species from a childhood spent playing crash bandicoot, but the real-world marsupials are just as cute and interesting as their video game counterpart.
Bandicoots are small, solitary, generally nocturnal marsupials that are distributed across Australia, New Guinea and associated islands. Adaptable to a range of habitats, they can be found in rainforests, wetlands, woodlands, and prairies. Even human environments can be utilised by certain species. They belong to the Peramelemorphia order, containing bandicoots and another species of small marsupial, the bilby. Despite having a detailed fossil record that spans 25 million years, the position of this order in the mammalian family tree has always been hotly contested. Genetic sampling of most living species and a few extinct species revealed that bilbies separated from a bandicoot ancestor in the mid to late Oligocene (33 to 28 million years ago.) It also revealed that the bandicoot species alive today evolved much earlier than the fossil record seems to suggest. Today, the Australian and New Guinea species have been split into different genera due to genetic and morphological differences. There are currently 20 species of known bandicoots across the entire order.
With their long snouts, small furry bodies, long hairless tails and big ears, Bandicoots are easily mistaken for rodents. Unlike other marsupials, bandicoots have a placenta. Using their sharp claws and long snouts, bandicoots dig funnel shaped tunnels in search of their insect and plant food. This makes them rather unpopular with farmers, who view them as pests that destroy their land and crops. However, Bandicoots are an essential part of the ecosystem. By turning over leaf litter in their snuffling search for food, they increase leaf litter decomposition which leads to more nutrient cycling and soil decomposition, both essential for the robust growth of new plants. One solitary bandicoot can turnover up to 13kg of soil in one night in search of dinner!
Population Crash (Bandicoot): the conservation status of the species
Population sizes and conservation status varies greatly across the species. Some species are fairing well, but others are sliding towards extinction thanks to habitat loss and invasive species like feral cats, a huge problem affecting many of Australia’s marsupials.
The Eastern barred bandicoot (Perameles gunnii) was once common throughout Australia and Tasmania but suffered massive declines and eventually went locally extinct in Australia in 2002. Today, the only mainland populations exist in two conservation areas, Mount Rothwell and Hamilton Community Parklands, fenced off to protect against predators. It is still reasonably well distributed in Tasmania but has disappeared from huge chunks of its former range. It is likely that predation from foxes caused the extinction on the mainland, and as red foxes have now been introduced to Tasmania there is major concern about the future of the Eastern barred bandicoot here in its last stronghold.
The Golden bandicoot (Isoodon auratus) was found throughout most of Australia but is now extinct save for a few small areas. No one has been able to get a good estimate of numbers, but scientists are fairly confident that the species is in a steady decline. On the mainland in particular, the bandicoots are particularly threatened by a combination and changing practices around controlled burns and feral cats. Reduced vegetation cover caused by the fires have led to increased predation by cats as there are less places for the bandicoots to hide. In other parts of its range, accidentally introduced black rats are outcompeting the bandicoot for food and other resources.
After almost 30 years of conservation efforts, the numbers of Eastern Barred Bandicoots jumped from just 150 to close to 1500. In fact, it enabled the IUCN to change the status of this marsupial from extinct in the wild to endangered. In the 1980’s, conservationists stepped in and invested huge amounts of money into an intensive conservation programme that involved a captive breeding programme and the development of predator free sites protected by specially trained dogs. The captive breeding programme produced 920 offspring that were safely released into these protected areas and make up a huge part of the wild population today. Even more encouragingly, despite dramatic declines, the genetic fitness of the population doesn’t seem to be affected and breeding rate and litter sizes are good. Currently, the plan is to now double the population and implement more self-sustaining populations across more predator free islands.
Zoos Victoria is a zoo based conservation charity working to fight extinction alongside running three zoos in Australia; Healesville Sanctuary, Melbourne Zoo and Werribee Open Range Zoo. They have partnered with several other organisations to conserve the Eastern Barred Bandicoot and have played a huge role in the captive breeding programme, producing 650 offspring to be reintroduced into protected, fenced off areas. They are also working to trial the use of trained Maremma dogs, a breed of Australian sheepdog, to protect the bandicoots from predators like foxes. You can donate or if you live in Australia, visit their zoos to support their conservation work.
The Australian Wildlife Conservancy is the largest private landowner and manager of land for conservation purposes in Australia. They work across a range of conservation projects, control invasive species, conduct ecological research and monitor the health of ecosystems. For the Golden Bandicoot the organisation is carrying out better controlled burns, controlling feral cat populations and researching better ways to control feral predator behaviour. In a Bandicoot area called Artesian Range the conservancy are supporting a stable dingo population, as they can help to bring down the numbers of feral cats.
You can donate to their organisation via their website or if you live around their conservation projects you can volunteer your time for a range of activities including scientific surveys, land management and sanctuary repairs.
The Golden Bandicoot
A clip from Zoos Victoria about the Eastern Barred Bandicoot and its recovery programme.
A mini documentary about the evolutionary history and ecology of the bandicoots.
Palmer, C. Taylor, R. and Burbridge, A. (2003) ‘Recovery plan for the golden bandicoot Isoodon auratus and golden backed tree rat Mesembriomys macrurus 2004-2009.’ Northern Territory Department of Infrastructure Planning and Environment.
Parrot, M.L. Coetsee, A.L. Hartnett, C.M. and Magrath, M.J.L. (2017) ‘New hope for the Eastern Barred Bandicoot after 27 years of recovery effort.’ International Zoo Yearbook.
Weeks, A.R., van Rooyen, A. Mitrovski, P. Heinze, D. Winnard, A. and Miller, A.D. (2013) ‘A species in decline: genetic diversity and conservation of the Victorian eastern barred bandicoot.’ Conservation Genetics
Westerman, M. Kear, B.P. Aplin, K. Meredith, R.W. Emerling, C. and Springer, M.S. (2012) ‘Phylogenetic relationships of living and recently extinct bandicoots based on nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequences.’ Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.