Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Bandicoot, the lesser-known Australian marsupial.

When I arrived in Australia in 1954, I knew all about Australia’s best known marsupial, the kangaroo, but had no idea that there were other marsupials equally interesting in their own way. I discovered this only when I cut sugar cane in Mossman in far North Queensland. - Werner

Once upon a time sugarcane fires lit the skies in Queensland, Australia, throughout the cane-cutting season. The cane was burnt to remove the dry leaves to make cutting easier, especially when the cane was still cut by hand. Today, this practice has been discontinued, and mechanical harvesters have replaced the manual cane cutter. To watch a cane fire, was a sight to behold, especially with the wind behind it, thirty-meter high flames were nothing unusual. Unfortunately, this spectacle also had a more ominous side to it. Many small animals, which found food and shelter in the cane fell victim to the fire if they were not fast enough to escape. 
They were predominately snakes, rats and bandicoots.The latter is the animal I’m writing about.

It is highly likely, I guess, that very few people outside Australia have heard about this marsupial, the cousin of our better known and national icon, the Kangaroo - and much less ever seen one. Seeing them is not easy, because they are nocturnal and start to come out at dusk from their hiding places in search of food. The diet of the Bandicoot is, in the main, insects, grubs and worms, but they also eat some roots, fungi, and berries when in season. They move over the ground sniffling and snuffling as they go, and find insects by smelling them. They also have the ability to detect worms and grubs under the soil and quickly dig down with their narrow front feet. The front feet have three toes with long curving claws, so the holes they dig are narrow and pointed at the bottom, and the narrow snout fits neatly into the hole to get the worm or grub at the bottom of the hole. They live a solitary life, nest alone and spend the day hidden in a nest, hollow log or just under bushes.

The only time females tolerate the company of males is when in season, solely to mate. After that event the male is no longer welcome.
The lifespan of a bandicoot is only about three years. When females are about three months old they start breeding, and this will be a continuous process from then on, to the end of their days. They are still suckling their young in the pouch while the next litter grows in the womb.

I can vividly remember when I first encountered this small, but interesting marsupial - mistakenly taking it for an oversized rat.
I was cutting sugarcane in Mossman in far North Queensland in the late 1950s, when we burnt off a paddock of sugarcane which was adjacent to a field that lay fallow in the late afternoon. As the fire raged, a drama took place on the ground, as well as in the air. I exclaimed! “Look at all those big rats escaping the fire!” My Boss smiled, “Those big ones are not rats. They are bandicoots.”

“They are what?”
I asked. This was my very first introduction to the word and the animal it represents. However, I have since learnt more about this animal as well as encountering them many times. Of course, for many bandicoots and rats that escaped the inferno into the fallow field and wrongly thinking it was their lucky break – unfortunately it wasn’t. A lot of them fell prey to the many hawks that circled above, eager for a meal. The hawks literally had a field day with gourmet food. I couldn’t help thinking of the English proverb, in reverse order, “From the fire into the frying pan” - it is indeed a cruel world out there. 

Bandicoot is the common name for any of 23 species of marsupials found inAustralia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. The Bandicoot ranges in length from 15 to 56 cm (6" to 22") depending on the species. They look something like a cross between a rat and a rabbit. The colour of the fur ranges from grey, to brown and golden brown. I was told by cane-farmers that the early European settlers called them bandicoots because they look like a pig-rat, or pandi-kokku of southern India, and the name has stuck. For the members of the group which have long rabbit-like ears, we use the name the aborigines gave them - bilby.

I will restrict myself in this story to the bandicoot I’m familiar with, the short-nosed northern brown bandicoot (Isodon macrourus) that is heavier built, has a shorter nose and smaller ears than the long-nosed one (Perameles nasuta) that is lighter built and has longer ears.
See picture above.) The long-nosed bandicoots live in areas that are more open and grassy, while the short-nosed prefers more wooded areas. Fully grown, they are about 250 mm (10") long.

As coastal cities are expanding, and bushland is lost, the bandicoot is squeezed out of their habitat. I was fortunate enough to live for many years, not among the gum trees, as the well-known Australian folk song goes, but among the bandicoots in North Queensland. They are generally considered useful little critters especially in sugarcane where they dig for the very damaging cane grub.

We lived for seven years at a place called White Rock, just south of Cairns.
(Now renamed “Mt. Sheridan”) We had tall mountains as a backdrop, and our house was adjacent to a little creek, and surrounded by bush and sugarcane. It was the ideal habitat of bandicoots - and many less desirable creatures. We had the pleasure of getting acquainted with one that for a long time came at dusk to the bottom of our steps, and the kids fed it with small bits of meat. This was very unusual, to come so close to humans, as they are normally very shy.

We found, as intriguing as this little marsupial was, it also had a downside, if one lived in a country area. Wherever, there were bandicoots, there were always snakes around, as bandicoots are part of their food chain. But a more worrisome aspect was, they carried the deadly scrub tick, which dropped off their host onto the lawn after it had its fill of blood. From there, it could get onto domestic animals such as dogs and cats with dire consequences. It is said that bandicoots are immune to the tick poison. We lost two dogs to tick paralysis, despite the vet administrating a very expensive antivenin, which was fairly new in the 1960s. Besides being extremely expensive, the death resulting from tick poisoning is an agonising one.

At night-time, we always knew when bandicoots were paying us a visit. Their squeaky grunts could be heard all night
. And if males fought with each other, there were prolonged squeaky grunts. In the morning, I would find to my chagrin, their instantly recognizable visiting cards that they left behind - the numerous holes in the lawn, which could prove very annoying to any proud owner of a well-groomed lawn.

Lets delve a bit deeper into the inner workings of this interesting little marsupial.
Bandicoots have the shortest known pregnancy of any mammal - only twelve and a half days. The half-day has some significance. The female mates at night and the young are born in the daytime in the security of the nest. As with all marsupials, their young are very small and undeveloped, with no fur and unable to see, yet they are still able to find their way into the pouch. In the case of the bandicoot, the young are only about one centimetre long. But one of the most interesting aspects is that the pouch of the bandicoot opens backwards, and inside the pouch are eight teats and there are usually three or four young.
By comparison, the Kangaroo, which has only one young, has two teats and the pouch opens upwards. Each newborn bandicoot attaches itself to one of the small teats in the pouch, which then swells, ensuring that the young stay there. I pondered for long time, as to why the pouch would open backwards, and came to
the following conclusion. The bandicoot digs holes with their shorter front legs in search of food, and if the pouch opened the other way, it would fill up with soil and smother the young.

What do you think? I’m convinced that the designer of the bandicoot was wearing his thinking cap when he invented this fascinating little animal.
My thought for today. - Werner
We have more to learn from animal than animals have to learn from us.
Anthony Douglas Williams


Unknown said...

For a bloke who didn't know what a bandicoot was it is amazing how much knowledge you have about them now. I was brought up on a cane farm and saw hundreds of them. You know more about them than us born Aussies. Thanks Werner.

Ute said...

Werner what great info about the bandicoot---you are always doing a lot of research first and then combining this with your own experiences. That makes it very lively for the reader.

I also liked your quote for the day…and here is one I found in a book.
A hug to you and good wishes for a quiet ANZAC Day.
Cheers, Ute

About Animals
“Sitting at the Table of Life
We need another and wiser and perhaps a more mythical concept of animals...We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and gravely err. For the animal shall not be measured by man.
In a world older and more complete than ours they are more finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
(Beston as cited in Chernak-McElroy, 1996.

Kevin said...

Thanks Werner for your bit on bandicoots. I recall many years ago on the Atherton Tablelands my brother-in-law advised me over a couple of beers that we were having a roast dinner that evening. Well after the meal he inquired as to how I enjoyed the meal. After answering in the affirmative he advised me that the meat was in fact bandicoot. That was my introduction to bandicoots.

Zane Cosgrove said...

Got caught out myself by paralysis ticks in the exact same scenario as you described in the article. Bandicoots were coming into the yard and ticks were dropping off into the lawn. After about 6 paralysis ticks in just 2 weeks I was off work, couldn't drive always dizzy, fatigued and in another world for a few weeks afterwards.