Feature

Bettongs

06 Apr. 2024
Brad Leue/AWC

Bettongs are small marsupials belonging to the same family as potoroos and are found only in Australia. Bettongs were once widespread across southern and central parts of the continent, but as a group they are highly vulnerable to feral cats and foxes. Several species have already gone extinct, while the ranges of all remaining species have drastically diminished, and for some species, urgent intervention is needed to preserve population numbers.

There are five species of bettong that are still extant, three of which have been reintroduced to feral predator-free safe havens on AWC sanctuaries and partnership areas in southern and central Australia, while a fourth species is present on two AWC sanctuaries in north-east Australia:

A Rufous Bettong (Aepyprymnus rufescens) at Mount Zero-Taravale Wildlife Sanctuary, Queensland. Wayne Lawler/AWC
A Rufous Bettong (Aepyprymnus rufescens) at Mount Zero-Taravale Wildlife Sanctuary, Queensland.

A bettong can grow between 30 and 38 cm, depending on the species. Each has a strong, prehensile tail roughly the same length as the body. Their body weights range from 2.8 kg in the Rufous Bettong, the largest of the group, to 1.2 kg in the smallest species (Northern Bettong). The males tend to be slightly larger and heavier than the females.

Bettong fur ranges in colour from pale grey to rusty brown. Habitats utilised by bettongs range from tall open forests with grassy understories, through temperate woodlands, mallee shrublands, spinifex grasslands, to arid and semi-arid shrublands.

A prehensile tail of a Brush-tailed Bettong (Woylie) (Bettongia penicillata). Jane Palmer/AWC
A prehensile tail of a Brush-tailed Bettong (Woylie) (Bettongia penicillata).

Bettong behaviour
All Bettongs are nocturnal, most nesting during the day in well-camouflaged depressions in the ground lined with leaf litter. The Burrowing Bettong is the only species which instead creates complex underground warrens to shelter in. Each species has a prehensile tail which it uses to carry nesting material.

During the night, Bettongs forage on a wide range of foods, typically including one or more of: fungi, roots, tubers, leaves, invertebrates, grubs, fruits and seeds. Most species feed preferably on truffles where available – the underground fruiting bodies of mushrooms.

Bettongs, like bilbies and bandicoots, are important ecological engineers, their digging and foraging aiding in the retention of nutrients and water in soils, the decomposition of leaf litter and the dispersal of fungal spores and plant seeds. As they roam from their nest to feed each night, they spread spores and seeds via their scats, snouts, and paws as they move about the landscape.

A Woylie (Brush-tailed Bettong) at Mt Gibson Wildlife Sanctuary, Western Australia. Brad Leue/AWC

Brush-tailed Bettong (Woylie) (Bettongia penicillata)

Conservation status: Endangered

The Brush-tailed Bettong has greyish-brown fur on the upperparts and flanks and pale grey fur on the underside. The tail is darkly coloured with a distinctive black brush at the end. Adult males grow to 36 cm (head-body) and 1.8 kg. Females are slightly smaller than males, and they can breed continuously throughout the year, giving birth to one young (rarely two) at a time. A single female can produce up to three offspring per year, depending on environmental conditions.

AWC protects almost 10 per cent of the world’s remaining Brush-tailed Bettong, with important populations protected within feral predator-free areas at Karakamia, Scotia, Yookamurra, Mt Gibson and Newhaven wildlife sanctuaries, and Pilliga and Mallee Cliffs National Parks.

AWC monitors populations across all these sanctuaries, contributes to the national Woylie Recovery Team, and facilitates a number of Woylie research projects.

A Boodie (Burrowing Bettong) at Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary in the Northern Territory. Brad Leue/AWC

Burrowing Bettong (Boodie) (Bettongia lesueur)

Conservation status: Vulnerable

Weighing approximately 1.3 kg, Burrowing Bettongs feature short, deep muzzles and small, rounded ears. Their thick yellowish-grey fur is paler below with a lightly-haired tail that often has a white tip. Burrowing Bettong burrows vary from simple tunnels to complex warren systems that have several entrances and many interconnecting passageways. Large warrens can support more than 20 animals, but individuals tend to forage independently.

AWC has established populations of Burrowing Bettongs in large feral predator-free areas on Scotia and Yookamurra sanctuaries, Faure Island and Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary. In partnership with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, AWC has also reintroduced the species into a large feral predator-free area at Mallee Cliffs National Park.

A Northern Bettong (Bettongia tropica) at Mount Zero-Taravale Wildlife Sanctuary, Queensland. Wayne Lawler/AWC

Northern Bettong (Bettongia tropica)

Conservation status: Endangered

The Northern Bettong is a small, grey, lightly built bettong with a black crest on the end of its tail. It holds its front paws closely to its chest, and moves with a low, distinctive springy hop. It grows to just over 30 cm with a tail of 34 cm and an average weight of 1.2 kg.

The species is restricted to a narrow band of eucalypt forest and woodland on the margins of rainforest in the Wet Tropics of Far North Queensland. Once more widespread, they are rapidly declining, with only two remnant populations, numbering in total no more than 1,000 individuals. This bettong has been identified as one of 20 Australian mammal species at greatest risk of extinction.

In May 2023, AWC translocated around 50 Northern Bettongs to establish a population in a feral predator-free fenced area at Mount Zero-Taravale Wildlife Sanctuary. The safe haven has the potential to make a major contribution to conservation of the species.

Threats to bettongs
Bettongs face an uncertain future. The introduction of feral predators, particularly foxes and feral cats, has been devastating for all species. Bettongs also face threats from changed fire regimes; with wildfires increasing exposure to predators, and fewer cooler/ cultural burns reducing suitable habitats and food availability in forested ecosystems. Bettongs continue to suffer from extensive loss of habitat – due to land clearing for agriculture and development – and ongoing competition for food from stock and feral herbivores, including feral pigs, goats and rabbits.

The threat of small, dispersed population numbers also poses a risk, both for the genetic integrity of the species and for the risk of extinction from chance events such as wildfires or floods.

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