Brush-tailed bettongs are back. These tiny endangered marsupials have been reintroduced to mainland South Australia after disappearing more than a century ago.
The bettong, also known as a woylie, once occupied more than 60 per cent of Australia, but was almost wiped out when cats and foxes were introduced by Europeans. Only about 15,000 are alive today.
Until last week, the only wild woylies left in South Australia were on predator-free islands. On 17 August, 12 male and 28 female woylies were returned to mainland South Australia after being flown in from Wedge Island, which lies within the Turquoise Coast Island Nature Reserves.
The woylies were released in an area called Yorke peninsula, which contains large tracts of native vegetation interspersed with farms and small towns. Three-quarters of the animals were fitted with radio-tracking collars so their progress could be monitored.
“They seem to have settled in quite well – some are already dispersing from the release site,” says Derek Sandow at the South Australian government’s Northern and Yorke Landscape Board.
To protect the new arrivals, rangers have removed as many foxes and feral cats as possible from the peninsula and have put up a fence to create a 1700 square-kilometre protected area.
If the woylie homecoming goes well, other locally extinct species like the southern brown bandicoot, red-tailed phascogale and western quoll will also be reintroduced to the area as part of a 20-year rewilding plan.
Woylies were the first to be released because they are soil engineers that can improve the habitat for other species, says Sandow. Each animal digs up tonnes of soil each year while searching for underground fungi, tubers and other food, which helps to cycle nutrients and disperse seeds. “We hope this will enhance germination rates for native plants and enhance overall biodiversity,” says Sandow.
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