Monday, July 23, 2007


The bandicoot lay dead on the middle of the trail. What killed it? I tried to surmise whether it had been knocked by a car, or attacked by a feral cat but it lay peacefully on the path and there seemed to be no visible signs of attack. I buried it in the bushes.

The bandicoot is a nocturnal animal and this was the first one I'd seen. I'd been wondering where the small marsupials were. I'd seen the occasional ringtail possum running across the electricity wires at dusk and spied their nests in the tree branches, sometimes with a small prehensile tail hanging down from the compactly woven possum-house. And I'd fed the visiting brushtail in the back garden. Walking along the river I often expected to see wallabies bouncing along the bushy riverbank but I had not imagined to see a bandicoot.

A local ornithologist came walking by, binoculars around his neck. I asked what birds he'd seen. 'Just the usual,' he said. So I told him about the bandicoot and his reply was, 'Well, every bandicoot has its day.'

The University of Queensland is doing research on these charming creatures still managing to eke out an existence in the pockets of fragmented bushland in Brisbane's suburbs. It's called: 'Life in the suburbs: the ecology of the northern brown bandicoot in suburban Brisbane.' The research is being conducted by: Sean Fitzgibbon and Anne Goldizen. In the website of the Behavioural Ecology Research Group, they say:

'The northern brown bandicoot (Isoodon macrourus) is a small marsupial that is able to survive in suburban areas, where patches of bushland occupy only a tiny fraction of the landscape. Bandicoots reside in these patches during the day, but often venture by night into people's backyards and adjacent parklands to forage. They are very secretive, and often the only sign of their presence is the conical holes they leave in the soil surface as they dig for insects and plant matter.

In the hostile suburban environment, bandicoots face an array of threats unlike those in extensive natural bushland, eg. domestic cats and dogs, human activity (esp. cars) and a severe lack of suitable daytime habitat. So what is it about bandicoots that allows them to persist in suburbia, when so many of our native mammals become locally extinct?

This project focuses on a few suburban bandicoot populations on Brisbane's southside, and is aimed at understanding how bandicoots survive (and seem to thrive) in these areas. Mark-recapture programs have been established to look at reproductive output and timing, as well as population density and demography. Radio-telemetry will also be used to study the movements of individuals, so that home ranges and activity patterns can be estimated. This results of this project will assist the conservation of more specialised mammal species that would normally become extinct in the face of urbanisation.'

For me, the sight of the bandicoot was both a gift and a reminder. The gift is the knowledge that small marsupials live along the river. The reminder is the knowledge that we need to take care of small native animals, to keep the bush, to save the trees, to stop the destructive development.

Sustainable urban development is possible. Retaining the bushland and creating sustainable housing is possible. People living side by side with bush and small mammals is possible. It requires commitment, care and understanding. And it requires seeing and connecting meaningfully with nature.

I have discovered that there is a difference in the way people see the natural enviroment. Some people see nature in the foreground; they see the flowers emerging, they hear the plovers overhead, they witness the magnificent sunset over the hills, and they smell the ground after rain. (What rain?) While for others, nature is in the background, or does not seem to be there at all.

People who drive to work comment that the only thing they see is traffic, asphalt, cars, jams, and they find it difficult to describe what natural elements they would see if they had to walk to work. They don't seem to notice the cerulean blue sky. Or the trees along the roadway, the glimmering river water, or the weedy plants pushing up through the cracks in the concrete. It's hard to imagine that nature is invisible.

The death of the gentle bandicoot is a reminder to take care, to question, to protest unsustainable development, to join with others in rejoicing the bounty of the natural world and pay homage to the shy creatures of the bush.