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Greater Bilby (Macrotis lagotis)

What does it look like?

Bilby
Bilby distribution map

The greater bilby is a bandicoot with long ears and a pointed snout. The male’s head and body can be up to 55 cm long and weigh up to 3.5 kg, but the female is about a third to half this size. Both sexes are covered with silky blue-grey fur, fading on the underbelly, although the tail, which can measure almost 30 cm, is black and white with a crest running along its length. The bilby’s nose and inner ears are pale pink, and its feet are white. Its rabbit-like features and loping gait means it is fast replacing the traditional ‘bunny’ – an introduced pest – as a symbol of Easter in Australia!

Where does it live?

The bilby prefers arid and semi-arid habitat and once lived over about two-thirds of Australia, except for the wettest and coldest southwest and southeast corners. It ranged from the Western Australian coast across to western Queensland, central New South Wales and north-western Victoria all the way south to the Great Australian Bight. It is now restricted to scattered populations in northern Western Australia, central Northern Territory and south-west Queensland. In Shark Bay, bilbies bred in captivity have been released into Francois Peron National Park as part of the local Project Eden conservation initiative.

Like other bandicoots, the bilby is a burrowing marsupial equipped with powerful claws. In sandy soil it can disappear from sight within minutes! It digs burrows wherever it goes in its home range, and may use as many as two dozen at any time. The burrows go down in a steep spiral up to 3 m long and almost 2 m deep! Two adult females or a male and a female may occasionally share a burrow, but the bilby usually prefers its own company. It spends the day in a burrow resting, emerging at night to dig for termites, witchetty grubs and ants. It also enjoys seeds, bulbs, fruit and fungi.

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How does it breed?

The bilby can breed throughout the year, an adaptation which allows it to quickly take advantage of good seasons in the harsh desert environment. The female can produce up to four litters per year, with usually one or two joeys per litter. Her pregnancy lasts just two weeks and the joeys stay in her pouch for ten weeks. They are suckled in the burrow for another 2 weeks and then weaned at about three months of age and can start to breed when they are less than six months old!

Any threats to its survival?

The bilby is vulnerable to extinction. While its deep burrow can be an effective defence against feral cats, it is no match for a hungry fox, and if caught above ground, a small or young bilby can fall prey to cats as well. Bushfires and the introduction of rabbits and grazing stock, which compete with the bilby for food, have also contributed to its decline in most of its former range. However, in places free of foxes and grazing animals, such as Peron Peninsula, the bilby is making a comeback. More releases at sites such as Lorna Glen are planned, and will help to bring this unique Australian mammal back from the brink.
 
For more information about Western Australian wildlife check out the WA Museum Fauna Base website.

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