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A newborn baby bilby (Macrotis lagotis) at the Taronga Zoo

A newborn baby bilby (Macrotis lagotis) at the Taronga Zoo

Everybody knows about the Easter Bilby—the magical marsupial who brings Easter eggs and candy treats to the good children of Australia (who are scarred by years of pestilential rabbit hordes)—but what does that have to do with Christmas week?  Well, this year bilbies are taking over Christmas as well as Easter.  Taronga Zoo (the city Zoo of Sydney Australia) is celebrating the birth of the zoo’s first-ever bilby joeys!  Although the bilbies were actually “born” 10 weeks ago, they are only just now emerging from their mother’s pouch.  The gestation period for the bilby is a mere two weeks, but when they are born they are still a bit underdone so they linger in the mother’s protected pouch for 75 days!  The mother of these adorable little scamps is named Yajala.  She moved to Sydney in order to pursue romance with George, the resident male bilby.  Since their mother is still extremely secretive and protective of her new little ones, it is unclear what gender the two babies are.  Their birth is exceedingly good news for bilbies which are terribly endangered by habitat loss and invasive predatory edentates.  The bilbies are all greater bilbies (Macrotis lagotis), which is the last living species of the family Thylacomyidae.  Aren’t they adorable?

Photos by Robert Dockerill

Photos by Robert Dockerill

A Bilby (Macrotis lagotis)

Happy Easter!  To celebrate, we head down under to the island continent of Australia.  There, in the arid scrubland, lives the bilby (Macrotis lagotis) an omnivorous nocturnal marsupial with long ears, silky fur, and a long black and white tail.  Bilbies belong to the Peramelemorphia order (along with bandicoots and sundry extinct kin), and they are renowned for their ability to dig elaborate spiraling burrows and for having one of the shortest gestation periods of all mammals–a dozen days from fertilization to birth.  As is the case with the loveable wombats, bilbies’ pouches face backwards to help the animals excavate burrows and dig up supper.

Baby Bilbies in a hat! (image credit: theage.com.au)

Bilbies are blue-gray in color and they grow to about 29–55 centimetres (11–22 in) in length and 3.5 kgs (8 pounds) in weight.  They use their sharp claws to unearth a wide diet of insects, arthropods, larvae, small animals, seeds, fungi, bulbs, and fruit.  Bilbies rarely drink—they get all the moisture they need from their food.

But wait a minute!  Fossorial Marsupials? Arid scrubland?  Short gestation? What does any of this have to do with Easter?  Well, due to a century of continent-wide ecological disaster caused by a plague of invasive bunnies, Australians hate rabbits with a burning passion (although of course this was not actually the fault of rabbits but was yet another mistake made by nature’s most problematic children).  The Easter bunny is not as popular in Australia as elsewhere—giving an Australian child a candy Easter bunny would be like giving a New Yorker a chocolate Easter rat.

The Easter Bunny and the Easter Bilby

Fortunately Bilbies have boldly stepped in to the Easter bunny’s role. In a land where rabbits are regarded as an abomination, the long eared bilby has become the mascot of Easter. Throughout Australia, bilby-shaped confections and related merchandise are sold as an alternative to Easter bunnies.  Additionally a number of children’s books have popularized the Easter bilby who seems to have a touch of animist aboriginal magic.  For example a passage from Burra Nimu, the Easter Bilby, describes the dyeing of Easter eggs like a dreamtime myth of the desert:

“[The bilby] knew that eggs meant the start of new life and new hope, so he made his especially beautiful. He painted rich red eggs, the colour of the hot desert earth, and splashed them with bright sparkles, because the desert is full of life…Next, he painted soft green eggs and sprinkled them with the colours of the wild flowers he had once seen, soon after the water fell from the sky.

I always liked the Easter bunny (and don’t get me wrong, I’m still thankful for the baskets of candy and toys he left) but it seems appropriate that his role has been usurped in Australia. By taking over the function of a minor holiday deity, bilbies have gained new prominence as one of the symbols of Australian conservation.   Enjoy Easter (or Passover or Mawlid-al-Nabi) and enjoy this little bilbie gallery I have put together!

"I know I'm a symbol, but please put me down!"

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