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Do you know what the biggest new trend of 2019 is? It’s QUOKKAS! Finally the ‘teens feature a popular movement that Ferrebeekeeper can get behind.

Quokkas are cat-sized marsupial herbivores of the genus Setonix, a genus which has only a single species Setonix brachyurus.   Quokkas are most closely related to kangaroos, wallabies and pademelons: together these animals make up the family known as macropods.   Quokkas weigh from 2.5 to 5 kilograms (5.5 to 11 pounds) and live up to 10 years.  They have brown grizzled fur and live on a variety of vegetation native to their little corner of southwest Australia. Wikipedia somewhat judgmentally notes that they are promiscuous.  Females usually give birth to a sole joey which lives in their pouch for 6 months and remains dependent on the mother for several months beyond that.

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Quokka populations have declined precipitously since Europeans colonized Australia.  They are outcompeted and preyed on by invasive cats, foxes, and dogs, and they have suffered extensive habitat loss to farms and homebuilding (plus they have some native predators such as snakes). The great Jerusalem for the quokka is Rottnest Island off the coast of Perth.  Rottnest means “rat’s nest” in Dutch (which I feel like I could learn!).  Apparently the 17th century Dutch explorer, Willem Hesselsz de Vlamingh, spotted extensive colonies of quokkas on the island and mistook the creatures for giant rats.

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So why is this dwindling macropod suddenly so popular? Quokkas do not have a particular fear of humans (an exceedingly unwise outlook, in my humble opinion).  Additionally, because of the shape of their faces, they seem to have satisfied chilled-out smiles.  Indeed, they might actually have chilled-out smiles (they seem pretty benign and happy), but no quokkas returned my phone calls, so I can’t speak to their true emotional state.  Anyway, the combined lack of fear of humans and the endearing smiles make them perfect in “selfies” and adorable digital animal photos.  The internet is thus good to the quokkas whose popularity is soaring by the day. Perhaps they can parlay this digital fame into population growth and success in the real world (although I suspect the internet’s content-makers would caution the quokka that there is limited correlation between digital and real-world success).

Now that you have read the little essay, here are some adorable grinning quokka pictures.  I really hope these guys flourish because just look at them!

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In Australia, rabbits are a curse.  The long-eared infestation started in 1859 when Thomas Austin, an estate owner, imported a mixture of wild and domestic rabbits from Europe to release on his large farm.  He hoped to recreate the hunting conditions of England where he had enjoyed shooting rabbits when younger.  He is famously quoted as saying  “The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.”

Rabbits in the Arid Australian Countryside

Thus began the greatest population explosion of mammals known in human history.  Within a decade, rabbits had overrun Southern Australia. Two million of the animals were harvested annually with no effect whatsoever on the larger population.  A combination of mild winters, no predators, and light scrub vegetation allowed the creatures to breed year round and increase their numbers exponentially with no natural resistance. They ate away whole ecosystems of scrub vegetation and outcompeted the little marsupial herbivores that lived there into extinction.  By gnawing down saplings they killed entire forests within the lifespan of the trees therein.  By digging warrens and denuding the vegetation they caused widespread erosion.  It was an ecological disaster of the first order–a mass extinction caused by bunnies(!)–and only humans were there to fight the fleet-footed enemy.

Australians responded gradually at first and then with increased alacrity and fury.  Shooting and trapping gave way to mass poisonings, ploughing, blasting, and fumigation. Tens of thousands of miles of rabbit proof fence were strung across the continent.  Wicked old world predators like rabbits and foxes were imported to stem the flood of rabbits (and naturally the predators first concentrated on eliminating remaining species of Marsupials).

Rabbits around a waterhole on Wardang Island (1930s)

Australians have gradually learned to make use of the rabbits.  In times of distress, depression, or famine they have provided a ready source of food for humans and farm animals (ground up rabbits were once a major source of chicken food for example).  The fur from so many rabbits created a fur industry and a felt industry.  But make no mistake, the Australians still hate the invasive creatures.   The twentieth century has seen a new campaign of biological war against the rabbits.  In the 1950s an introduced strain of Myxoma virus wiped out an estimated half a billion rabbits.  Then in the early 1990s a calicivirus escaped a secure biological research facility (where scientists were engineering the disease to kill rabbits) and quickly spread through wild and domestic populations.   Yet despite all of the measures taken to kill the creatures they have endured and thrived.  Rabbits are still there, still causing havoc.  It is one of the more vivid lessons in human history about the difficulties of controlling ecosystems.

Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus)

It’s the final day of Furry Mammal Herbivore week which has so far featured two different lagomorphs, one rodent, and the enigmatic hyrax. To mix things up a bit we are ending with a marsupial–the stolid wombat.  The wombat’s unusual moniker comes from the Eora language which was spoken by the Aboriginal people who originally inhabited the Sidney area. There are three species of wombats and all are powerful burrowing herbivores which are active mostly at twilight and at night.  Wombats are marsupials but the openings of  their pouches face backwards to prevent dirt from getting inside as they dig.  Although wombats are not often seen, their presence can be identified by the many burrows which they excavate and by their distinctive cubic scat which looks like bouillon cubes (you’ll have to look it up on your own).

Wombat physiognomy betwrays their close relation to koalas.

Wombats are larger than this week’s other herbivores, reaching nearly a meter (3 feet) in length.  Although they are preyed on by dingos and Tasmanian Devils, their large muscles and heavy claws give them some protection (as does their tailless haunch which is composed largely of dense cartilage).   A predator following a wombat into a burrow is confronted not only with the shield-like flesh of their rear-quarters but also with fearsome donkey kicks from their powerful back legs.  Wombats are never far from their burrows since they construct up to 12 at various spots around their territory.  Even if they are related to the dimwitted koalas, wombats are said to have a more complicated brain than other marsupials (although their intelligence in no way approaches that of the brilliant monotreme echidna) and they often surprise trappers and zoologists with their clever evasive thinking.  Additionally, when hard pressed, they can run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds—impressive when one learns the human world record is 9.58 seconds.

Death of a Wombat (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1869, pen and ink)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter, poet and weirdo, used the wombat to parody the Victorian taste for overly lugubrious gothic melodrama in his sad drawing “The death of a Wombat” (above).  The drawing shows a plump 19th century gentleman weeping for his deceased wombat friend while declaiming the following lament:

I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet & fat
And tail-less; he was sure to die!

The work might be a parody but I find the poor dead wombat curiously affecting.  Fortunately all wombats are now protected by Australian law.  Despite such protection, the creatures are still having trouble competing for grazing with cattle, sheep, and above all rabbits.  Hopefully wombats will continue to endure–the endearing little bulldozers are an irreplaceable component of Australia and Tasmania.

Aww!

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