Did you know there could be northern bettongs or other threatened wildlife living near you? Discover what animals need protection in your local area using
WWF-Australia’s ‘My Backyard’ tool, and find out how well they’re being cared for.
The northern bettong is a fussy animal. Not just any accommodation or meal will do. No, the northern bettong carefully fashions a private nest of grass, leaves and bark where the tropical rainforest meets the grassy woodland of Queensland's Wet Tropics. And while roots and tubers and cockatoo grass will suffice in drier times, the bettong has a refined taste for truffles (the fruiting bodies of underground fungi).
This small macropod is a solitary customer, too. It spends all day sheltering in its nest, emerging at night to forage for its beloved truffles, moving about in a low, springy hop. Rounded diggings and spit-balls of undigested grass (called oorts) track its nocturnal forays. With an average body length of just over 30 centimetres and weighing in at a little more than one kilogram, this delicate creature lives for only about six years. Although it was once widely distributed, the northern bettong seems to have disappeared from all but one small area near Cairns, in far north Queensland.
What we're doing
With funding from the Australian Government we’re working with our partners to gain a better understanding of the bettong and to develop a conservation plan. The project brings together James Cook University (JCU) scientists, the Department of Environmental and Heritage Protection (EHP), Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS), as well as local Indigenous and NRM groups. JCU scientists have developed molecular technology that will allow us to track individual bettongs, determine their sex and map their family trees using extracted DNA. We're also managing the growth and renewal of bettong habitat and food sources by studying the role of fire.
Numbers and distribution
We know of three small sub-populations of bettong within the Lamb Range, near Cairns. What we don't know is if the bettongs occur throughout the rest of the range, or only in these tiny pockets. To figure this out, we’re conducting a massive camera trap survey, installing cameras at 150 sites and rotating them throughout the seasons. We’re also conducting assessments to determine what habitat features are essential for northern bettongs.
Research is underway to determine how many northern bettongs are left at the known sites. Cage trapping is being used as the tried and tested method for determining abundance. However, we're also trialing new techniques to monitor the population. We're hoping they'll open the door to cheaper, easier, non-invasive surveying so that we can keep a close eye on population levels into the future.
Home off the range?
Our work goes beyond the known population. Working with Traditional Owners and Indigenous rangers, we’re searching all potential habitat for signs of northern bettongs. In some areas, bettongs were last seen about 20 years ago. Sensor cameras are a great way to see what's out there with very little disturbance (if any) to the animals. They’re good at detecting animals that can be missed by spotlighting and cage trapping, even if there are few of them. We remain hopeful of finding an additional bettong population, maybe with the help of a detection dog.
Oort to be here
When feeding on cockatoo grass, northern bettongs often produce something called an ‘oort’, the ball that remains after they have chewed up the base of the grass and extracted all nutrients and moisture. These oorts are already an important tool for revealing the presence of bettongs. We are now trialling them in genetic studies as a way of collecting DNA (the oorts are covered in saliva). If these trials are successful, we could have a much more efficient and economical way to continuously monitor bettong populations.
Latest updates from the field
Why it matters
New research is showing that the northern bettong plays an essential role in maintaining the health of its complex forest community. A large part of the bettong's diet is made up of truffles (fungi that grow underground on the roots of trees), which make them one of the top truffle dispersers. In fact, quite a few truffles seem to be eaten only by bettongs, making them completely dependent on bettongs for the dispersal of their spores. Lose the disperser and some of the truffles could disappear. Take away the truffles and some of the trees that depend on the truffles could also be lost. You see, just as the truffles need the tree for water, sugar and a place to grow; the trees rely on the truffles to fix and make nutrients available from the very poor soils that they’re growing in. This rare ecosystem, an area of less than 500 square kilometres, is so delicately poised that removing one element – the bettongs, the truffles or the trees – could just cause the whole ecosystem to collapse.
They're small! Adults weight on average only 1.2 kilograms.
Listed as Endangered (EPBC Act 199 and IUCN Red List).
Did you know?
The northern bettong has a prehensile tail to grasp and carry leaves and sticks, which it uses to build a nest where it can hide during the day.