For the Kids

Woylie (Bettongia penicillata)

Woylie distribution map

What does it look like?

Also known as the brush tailed bettong, the woylie is a small macropod that stands only 300-350mm high and weighs 1-1.5kg. It is a grizzled, yellowish grey in colour with a paler belly and a black crest on its well furred, prehensile tail. It is of lighter build with slightly larger ears and longer face than its cousin, the burrowing bettong or boodie.

Where does it live?

The woylie was once common and widespread across much of southern Australia from Shark Bay across the southern half of South Australia, the northwest corner of Victoria and into central NSW. It suffered severe declines after European settlement and by the 1970’s was restricted to 3 small areas of open forest and woodland in southwest Western Australia. Recovery efforts over the next 3 decades saw woylies translocated to many additional sites in southwest Western Australia and interstate. Populations were established at 3 locations in South Australia and one in New South Wales.

The woylie lives mainly in open forest and woodland with a dense low under story of tussock grasses and woody scrub. It is nocturnal and spends its days in an elaborate grass or bark-lined nest that it builds by carrying material in its prehensile tail. It doesn’t need to drink and forages at night, feeding mainly on the fruiting bodies of underground fungi, supplementing this diet with bulbs, tubers, seeds insects and resin of the Hakea plant. Woylies turn over an enormous amount of soil in their foraging, and recent research indicates they have an important ecological role, turning over and breaking up soil to improve water penetration, recycling nutrients by burying leaf litter and spreading fungal spores.

How does it breed?

The woylie will breed all year round in good conditions. The female can breed at six months of age and can produce a joey every 3½ months for the rest of her life. Life span in the wild is about 4-6 years. Like many other macropods, the woylie can have an embryonic diapause.

Any threats to its survival?

The reduction in woylie population and distribution since European settlement was mainly due to extensive clearing of its habitat and the impact of feral predators. Successful conservation efforts in the 1980s and 90s concentrated on controlling the feral fox and reintroducing woylies from expanding populations to fox-free sites in its former range. Some translocations failed, but others succeeded in establishing populations in other southwest forest areas of Western Australia as well as Venus Bay, St Peter Island and Wedge Island in South Australia and Scotia Sanctuary in NSW. Woylies were also translocated to the Peron Peninsula in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area between 1997 and 2000.They will be among the species reintroduced to Dirk Hartog Island as part of the ecological restoration project for the island. For more information about this project see Return to 1616.
Populations probably reached a peak of approximately 40,000 (from less than 2000) in 2001, and the woylie was the first fauna species to be taken off the threatened species list as a result of conservation actions, in 1996. Unfortunately, since 2001, the woylie has suffered a huge population crash of between 70-90%, across most of its key populations and The Woylie Conservation Research Project has been set up to investigate the causes of this decline. The picture is not yet clear, but cat predation and disease (probably related to a low genetic diversity) have been implicated. In 2007, the woylie was placed back on the WA list of priority species, and IUCN endangered species list.
For more information about Western Australian wildlife check out the WA Museum Fauna Base website.

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