Taronga Zoo’s three Bilbies, Dougal, Sparkie and Yippie, are revealing the shy ways of one of Australia’s least seen mammals to some lucky zoo visitors.
There may now be less than a 1000 of these tiny animals left in the wild, including as few 500-600 in Queensland.
Once numerous across about 70 percent of Australia, particularly in arid areas, Bilbies are clinging on in the wild in some tiny populations in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and on some off-shore islands in South Australia, where zoo-based breeding programs have returned them to the wild.
Taronga Zoo Australian Mammal keeper, Paul Davies, said: “Most of our country’s 22 million people will never see a Bilby in the wild, but we’ve been able to develop a special presentation for our Taronga Wild Australia Experience tours where people can see them right in the heart of Sydney.”
“We’ve got them used to people and now we can bring Dougal, Sparkie and Yippie out onto the corridor at Taronga’s Australia’s Nightlife exhibit for these tours from so our visitors can also see them.”
The small marsupials are similar to bandicoots and have the most remarkable ears which function like sophisticated air conditioning systems to help them survive in their harsh natural desert environments where temperatures swing from boiling hot to freezing cold.
Paul said: “When it’s hot, the bilbies keep their ears erect. The ears are hairless and rapidly cool the little creatures. When it’s cold, they let their ears fall against their head, almost like a little helmet, to conserve heat.”
“We’ve also found they’re can run very quickly and when they do, the hold their white-tipped tails forwards over their heads, like a little lamp lighting their way.”
“We’re getting amazing reactions from people. Many overseas visitors think the bilbies are chinchillas, while Australians say they’ve heard of them but have never seen one.”
Bilbies can dig extensive and complex burrows, but these are often taken over by rabbits, an introduced pest. They also are highly vulnerable to feral cats, of which there could be over 23 million in Australia. Bilbies were also extensively trapped along with rabbits in the 1800s.
They are listed as vulnerable and numbers are rapidly falling in the wild.
Bilbies will be celebrated on September 12 during National Bilby Day and they are the focus of Australia’s Zoo Aquarium Association’s efforts on National Threatened Species Day on Tuesday, 07 September.