The Woylie is a species of Bettong which has been exterminated from almost all its historical range over the last 150 years. Remnant populations persisted in south-west Western Australia. The species initially responded positively to broadscale fox control, but in the last two decades, remnant populations have crashed, likely due to cat predation, from about 200,000 animals to fewer than 15,000.
AWC protects almost 10 per cent of the world’s remaining Woylie population, with important populations of Woylies living within predator-proof fenced areas on Karakamia, Scotia, Yookamurra and Mt Gibson sanctuaries. The Karakamia population has the distinction of being the only population of Woylies in Western Australia that has not declined in recent years. AWC ecologists monitor populations of the Woylie on the four sanctuaries where it occurs. AWC contributes to the national Woylie Recovery Team, and facilitates a number of research projects that are investigating the causes of population decline.
Predation by European foxes and more recently, feral cats, is the major cause of range contraction and decline of Woylie populations in Australia. In Western Australia, Woylies increased in distribution and abundance following large-scale fox-baiting during the 1980s. However, most populations have declined again in the last 15 years – most likely due to predation by feral cats, although research is also being conducted into the potential role of disease in population decline. In the past, extensive areas occupied by the Woylie were cleared for agriculture, and millions of Woylies and other bettongs were killed as agricultural pests or for the fur trade in the early 20th century.
The Woylie 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 (hence the species’ common and scientific name). Adult males grow to 36 centimetres (head-body) and 1.8 kilograms. Females are slightly smaller than males, and 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.
A small nocturnal marsupial, the Woylie is considered an important ‘ecosystem engineer’ because its digging and foraging helps turn over topsoil, cycling nutrients and improving aeration and water infiltration into the soil.
Woylies primarily eat underground fungi (truffles), as well as tubers, bulbs, seeds and other vegetative products, such as resin. Their foraging also disperses plant seeds and fungal spores facilitating plant recruitment.
Range and abundance
At the time of European colonisation, Brush-tailed Bettongs inhabited much of southern Australia, from Western Australia through to the western plains of the Great Dividing Range in New South Wales and southern Queensland. Two sub-species are recognised – the Brush-tailed Bettong (Bettongia penicillata penicillata) in eastern Australia and the Woylie (Bettongia penicillata ogilbyi) in Western Australia. However, the historical geographical relationship of these sub-species is uncertain and their common names are used interchangeably. Bettongia penicillata penicillata is now presumed extinct, while Bettongia penicillata ogilbyi is restricted to three remnant populations in southwest Western Australia – Kingston and Perup in the Upper Warren and Dryandra Woodland.
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