It's official. The quokka, once described by a Dutch explorer as "a kind of rat", is the world's happiest animal. Darlings of social media and the subject of countless 'selfies' on Rottnest Island, this small wallaby seems to wear a perpetual smile. But the quokka's fate is nothing to laugh about. Before European settlement it was widely distributed across the southwest of WA, including its offshore islands. Rottnest Island, the holiday destination just off Perth, continues to harbour one of the best known and largest quokka populations. However, mainland populations have dramatically contracted, with their area of occupancy on the mainland possibly halved. The quokka is now restricted to a number of small scattered populations on the mainland, Rottnest and Bald Island, near Albany. Loss and degradation of its habitat and predation by foxes and feral cats are the causes of the quokka's decline. Its distribution also appears to be affected by climatic factors. And as southwest WA dries due to climate change, there will be more habitat loss at the quokka's expense.
Quokkas are attractive and inquisitive creatures. They’re also beautifully adapted to the unpredictable Australian environment. The quokka clan makes its home in swamps and scrublands, tunnelling through the brush to create shelters and emerging at night to eat grasses, leaves, roots and seeds. When water is scarce, this little wallaby dines on water-storing succulents. It also has a remarkable ability to regulate its body temperature, coping when the mercury reaches as high as 44°C. If vegetation is scarce, it can even climb a small tree to snatch a tasty leaf, plus it stores fat in its short tail. A wily survivor it may be, but the quokka is no match for landclearing or foxes and feral cats. Without human intervention, it faces an uncertain future. It would be a travesty if one of the first Australian mammals seen by Europeans were to be lost on our watch.