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Issue #1690      June 24, 2015

Save the Long-nosed Potoroo

Where I grew up on Hobart’s Eastern Shore our house was bordered by wooded hills and gullies of native bushland. It was a wild and wondrous place to explore and play. And with the varied and abundant wildlife living there every outing was an exciting adventure. While walking on tracks in this forested and grassy area I would frequently see these delightful little creatures, hopping about. Eventually I found out they were Long-nosed Potoroos.

When I was older in my travels camping and bushwalking around other parts of Tasmania I also sometimes saw potoroos, mostly in the mornings or evenings. Usually I’d spot Long-nosed Potoroos hopping across tracks or clearings, but now and again I managed to get very close up and observe them feeding among the undergrowth or out in the open.

Later on I lived for eight years in Dodges Ferry, a small seaside town on the southeast coast of Tasmania with my own family. Our house was in a gully on a hill, a short distance from the seaside. Between our home (and the other houses of the town) and the beach was a wide area of dense bushland, consisting mainly of native grasses, shrubs, Wattle, She Oak and Eucalypt trees with rocky sandstone cliffs. This coastal heath and scrubland area also had some little wetlands and one large lagoon. This spot as well as other similar coastal woodlands around the region was a haven for lots of native wildlife, including Long-nosed Potoroos.

There were many walking tracks winding through these scrubland and woodland areas and at various points linked to several beaches. In the early mornings before work and in the evenings after work I would take long walks with our German Shepherd dog, Sabra along these tracks and on to the deserted beaches. While on these walks I would regularly glimpse Long-nosed Potoroos hop across the walking tracks and into the surrounding dense scrubland. On some occasions to my delight they would stop and forage for food and I’d stand still and quietly watch them up close for a while.

Long-nosed Potoroos make a network of low, well-defined and connected pathways or runways through the thick undergrowth, which they use to move about on. Each morning on my walks I would see fresh diggings, left behind when Long-nosed Potoroos feed on underground roots and fungi, using their strong forepaws. Potoroos spend the daylight hours in grass nests amongst the thick vegetation and feed at dusk or dawn, but rarely venture from cover. They are shy, mostly nocturnal marsupials and for this reason I think many locals would never have seen them or even knew Long-nosed Potoroos inhabited the area. As they are rarely seen in the wild, the indicators of potoroo presence are the runways they make through the undergrowth and the diggings they leave behind when feeding.

The Long-nosed Potoroo is a rabbit-sized small wallaby with a pointed, elongated muzzle. The best description is that it is really like a miniature kangaroo. These cute little animals look a bit like a bandicoot, but they tuck their front feet into their chest and hop the same as wallabies and kangaroos do. They weigh just over a kilo and are from 30-40cm in body length, while the tail is about 25mm long. Long-nosed Potoroos tails are somewhat supple and able to grip so that they can use them to gather nesting material.

They are grey-brown in colour, with paler fur on the belly. In the Tasmanian population, they range in colour from rufous-brown in the west coast to grey-brown on the east coast. Many Long-nosed Potoroos in Tasmania have a white tip at the end of the tail; this is especially common in the southern parts of the state.

Long-nosed Potoroos live in dry areas and wetlands, from dense grassy coastal heath and scrubland to Eucalypt forest. Relatively thick ground cover is the essential requirement of potoroo habitat, which it needs for protection and so that they can build nests. They also prefer light sandy soils that are easy to dig in for underground fungus and roots that they mainly eat. Long-nosed Potoroos also feed on a range of seeds, bulbs, fruits, grasses, worms and insects.

Various studies have shown that fungi form a major part of Long-nosed Potoroo diet. These fungi live in association with the roots of many Eucalypt and Acacia trees, helping them to absorb more water and nutrients and are essential for some seedling survival. Potoroos therefore improve the health of the forest by helping to disperse a host of beneficial fungi spores as they forage for food. Like other herbivorous marsupials, they also act as nature’s fire fighters by keeping the undergrowth down via grazing and turning the leaf litter over.

Long-nosed Potoroos are mainly solitary; they live alone, or with their baby, rather than in groups and come together to mate. Breeding can happen throughout the year, although most births occur from the end of winter to early spring. The gestation period is 38 days, which is the longest of any macropod, despite it being one of the smallest. The Joey spends about four months in the pouch and is weaned at five-six months. Female Potoroos usually produce only one young a year.

Quolls, Dingoes, owls, foxes; feral dogs and cats prey on Long-nosed Potoroos.

Long-nosed Potoroos are found in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania. The range of the Long-nosed Potoroos on the east coast of the mainland has been considerably reduced to small patchy populations. They are distributed from a small area in southeastern Queensland and northern NSW, to parts of Victoria (the southeast and southwest, including the Grampians, Otways, Wilson’s Promontory, East Gippsland and French Island) and southeast South Australia. It is still common and widespread in suitable habitat in Tasmania, especially on the north and east coasts. They are also found on Flinders Island, Bruny Island and Maria Island, where they are fairly common. Though found on King Island, they are rare there.

The Long-nosed Potoroo has been badly affected by the spread of human settlements, the use of fires and other human disturbances. Many are killed on roads that run through or border their territory. But the biggest threat to the survival of the Long-nosed Potoroo is habitat loss and fragmentation, with the clearing of the bush for grazing and development reducing the woodland and forcing them into smaller isolated pockets.

Left over habitat that has a sparse forest understorey does not provide the necessary shelter that potoroos require. The clearing of scrubland and grassland also exposes the species to increased risk from predators like cats, dogs and foxes. Long-nosed Potoroos are listed as vulnerable in NSW, endangered in Victoria and vulnerable nationally. It is now a wholly protected species.

From my many encounters with Long-nosed Potoroos when travelling about and living in the southeastern coastal region of Tasmania they certainly appear to be abundant and I have often come across them in other parts of the state as well. In recent trips back to Tasmania I’ve caught sight of quite a few in a variety of places, from woodland to coastal scrubland and rural areas with grassland.

Sadly, I also see lots of dead potoroos on the roads. But, fortunately despite the array of problems they confront, the Long-nosed Potoroo seems at present safe in Tasmania. Its continued existence is significantly helped by the absence of European Foxes and Dingoes and having few feral dogs in the state. My family and I have also occasionally seen Long-nosed Potoroos while bushwalking in the remote parts of far East Gippsland in Victoria.

Fortunately, Victorian National Parks rangers have undertaken vigorous measures to control foxes and wild dogs in East Gippsland and elsewhere in the state in an effort to protect the remaining Long-nosed Potoroo populations. This has reduced the predation pressure on the potoroos and as a result of the decrease in fox and dog numbers there has been an increase in Long-nosed Potoroo numbers.

Hopefully more can be done to reduce Long-nosed Potoroo fatalities on the roads and from being killed by foxes, wild dogs and feral cats. And let’s do more to preserve enough of its remnant native bushland from clearing, so that these threatened potoroos continue to exist and thrive in the wild. As is the case with much of Australia’s native wildlife, our actions most often determine the outcome of a species chance of survival. It would be appalling to neglect what needs to be done to properly protect what’s left of the Long-nosed Potoroo’s habitat and save this precious and endearing small marsupial from disappearing.

Next article – Dark plots in the Middle East

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