What can history tell us about these “magnificent creatures”?

The Bilbies have a lot going for them. Biologically and ecologically, small furry marsupials should thrive, and yet they don’t, says University of Queensland biologist Dr Jennifer Silcock.

“These are fast-breeding, non-specialist, generalist, omnivorous species,” she says. “They should be harmful, but they are not, they are really in danger. If we lose a species like the bilby we are really doing something very wrong with land management. »

Silcock is the lead author of research published in CSIRO Wildlife Research investigate historical records to find more information about where the bilbies lived and the factors that led to their rapid decline.

The research is designed to fill knowledge gaps due to lack of specimen records.

The decline of the bilby was so rapid after European settlement, that there was not much chance of collecting records, she says. Bilby sightings also tend to be rare as the species are nocturnal and shy, making them difficult to see, especially in wooded areas.

To address this problem, historical research brings together a vast assemblage of information from the journals of explorers and early settlers, journal records, interviews with indigenous peoples and ranchers, and ethnographic and linguistic sources.

Crucial information came from two unpublished master’s theses, Silcock says. One, from the late Peter McCrae, a Charleville-based zoologist who had spent decades collecting historical records on the bilby. The other, from New South Wales-based scientist Dr Rick Southgate, who had also amassed bilby records.

Silcock also used Trove, the digital journal and online archive run by the National Library of Australia, to search for bilby reports as early as the 1870s. It’s a resource that has “revolutionized” the way scientists conduct this kind of historical studies, she says.

“At the time, there was this incredible interest in natural history. All the newspapers had these columns on ‘bush notes’ and ‘walks’. People were writing with sightings of animals and plants, and things about the changing of the seasons, and interesting sightings that they had had. people would respond […] I mean, imagine having a column like this in The Australian today,” she said.

Silvock shares some examples.

RAR written in The Queenslander in 1883, “my wife kept one as a pet for nearly twelve months, when it died from excessive feeding of saline succulents […]”

In 1900, a ‘Scotty the Wrinkler’ written in The bulletin, “To finish on the bilby, let me tell you that I have caught at least 40 this season in my rabbit traps… The skin of the bilby is tender, hard to tan and virtually unsaleable except as a curiosity. A skin makes a beautiful child muff. A dozen or so would make fine trimming for the hems, pockets, collar and cuffs of a woman’s jacket: especially if the dress was a bespoke gray French tweed. I took a lot in Melbourne, and I got a smile and nothing more for everyone […]”

Bilby Shot Blackall 1912 The Telegraph Copy
A photo of a bilby shot in the dunes near Blackall in central Queensland, posted in The telegraph 1912 / Credit: National Library of Australia

Silcock says that while historical records have not greatly expanded the extent of bilby’s known range, the information has expanded understanding of the species’ known habitats.

Bilbies used to occur in about 70% of mainland Australia and have now receded into small, small pockets, mostly in the central desert lands. “Such a sandy country, big deserts, mostly aboriginal land, just clinging to a few pastoral stations, national parks,” says Silcock.

She says bilbies survive today in some extreme places: “incredibly arid landscapes – you can stand there and not see a tree or shrub anywhere on the horizon. Absolutely cooking in the summer, very little ground cover.

“It’s probably not the ideal habitat for the bilby. This is where they can survive where nothing else can, where there are usually low densities of cats and almost no foxes.

Active bilby burrow coorabulka 18dec12 peter mcrae copy
Current bilby habitat in South West Queensland / Credit: Peter McCrae

But these historical records show that bilbies once occupied a much wider range of habitats and ecosystems, including heavily forested areas of southeastern Australia and sand ridges along major rivers.

“I was really surprised how widespread they were in such a wide range of vegetation types. And many vegetation types that we don’t typically associate with bilbies,” she says.

While bilbies rapidly disappeared from populated areas beginning in the 1890s, by the 1990s things seemed to have stabilized somewhat.

Silcock says this is no coincidence given that the 1990s marked a growing public awareness of the bilby, thanks to the efforts of the “Bilby Brothers” McRae and Frank Manthey in Queensland, of the Australia- Southern for Rabbit Free Australia and many others across the country.

“It’s no coincidence that the Easter Bilby took off at that time,” she adds.

Learn more about bilbies: The social life of bilbies more complex than we thought

This year, Haigh’s Chocolates celebrates 30 years since it first produced chocolate Easter bilbies as a replacement for traditional bunnies. The company’s website says the idea was pitched to the company by a park ranger in hopes of bringing attention to the environmental damage caused by rabbits and the bilby’s fight for survival. .

Copy of nude bilbies
Easter Bilbies / Credit: Haigh’s Chocolates

On the company’s website, Haigh’s states that the chocolate marsupials “were an instant hit with our customers”, leading to the complete elimination of the Easter Bunnies two years later.

Over a million chocolate bilbies have since been sold, with a portion of the proceeds going to bilby conservation efforts. Other chocolatiers have also taken up the idea.

Peter Day is the chief executive of the environmental charity Rabbit-Free Australia, which first came up with the Easter Bilby concept in 1991.

The idea was born out of a desire to draw public attention to the damage rabbits cause to the landscape and the efforts needed to bring back native plants and animals, he says. Cosmos.

“The bilby has been a great champion of the cause,” he says. For the organization, it is a way of highlighting the impact of rabbits on the environment more broadly and the need to control introduced species if we are to see the return of native plants and animals.

For Silcock, seeing a bilby in the wild remains “one of the most emotional moments you will ever have”.

“They are so charismatic, the way they hop. They are incredible creatures.

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