Winter 2001
Marsupial of the Season

 

The Rufous Bettong
Aepyprymnus rufescens

by
Tim Keynes 

please click on thumbnails to enlarge

The Rufous Bettong (Aepyprymnus rufescens)

The Rufous Bettong, or Rat-kangaroo as it always used to be called, is the sole member of the Genus Aepyprymnus.  It is also the largest of the Bettongs, being about the size of a half grown Dama Wallaby (Macropus eugenii), and one of the more readily available and commonly kept in captivity, at least here in South Australia.

 

The Rufous Bettong is a personal favourite of mine – so much so that I have kept this species almost continuously since 1981.  

Individual animals can have great personalities – being quite confiding at times.  Some will take food direct from your hands – though they rarely ever appreciate being touched.  If you ever need to handle one, pick them up by the base of the tail, but – Be Careful – they can bite and kick violently!

 

These are active animals and, not being overly social, need relatively large enclosures to be able to behave and act naturally.      They are best kept as pairs or in small family groups of one male and two or three females and their progeny.  They can climb wire fences easily, so enclosures need solid walls or wire overhangs to keep the animal safely enclosed.     They are also good diggers, and enclosures must be designed accordingly.      Dogs and cats are the main problems in suburban areas, so ensure your enclosures are safe from these predators.      Rufous Bettongs are generally inoffensive to other animals and can be kept safely with a variety of other native animals, such as Potoroos, Wallabies etc.

 

Rufous Bettong (at centre) shown with Long–nosed Potoroo (Potorous tridactylus) and Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons)

Rufous Bettongs make nests for sleeping in during the daylight hours.    These nests are really just depressions in the ground, which they then line and cover with straw, grasses or hay.    Only one animal uses any one nest at a time – unless it is mother and joey.     These nests can be extremely well camouflaged and are easy to step on if you’re not very careful.      Believe me, you’ll know soon enough though – the animal will spring from its nest with a growl and at great velocity and give you quite a shock before it bounds away on its long, spring-like legs.    At night they become active and spend their time foraging for food, collecting new nesting materials for their nests, etc.  Individual animals have several nest sites on the go at any one time and will regularly move camp from one night to the next.      I suspect they spend much of the night collecting materials to renovate their nests.      To collect nesting materials they use their teeth to cut grasses to size and their forearms to scrape together pieces of grass and straw into a small pile in front of themselves.      Then they lean forward on their forepaws and, using their tail as a counter balance at the other end, bring their hind feet forward and quickly scrape the bundle of grass back beneath themselves to end up wrapped it in their tail, which is partly prehensile.     The result is that the tail ends up curled around the grass and, surprisingly, they can carry quite large quantities this way.

 

Breeding times are a noisy and active period – the females growling quite loudly almost the entire time a male is in pursuit.  He will also make a nasal sound with practically every hop!

Rufous Bettong nest

When she finally stops running, the male will catch up and thump his hind feet on the ground, seemingly trying to hold her tail down (as this way she cannot kick him with her hind feet), till she accepts his advances and mating takes place.    A single joey is the usual result.    It grows rapidly and once it becomes too big for the pouch is left alone in the nest for several days before it is old enough to follow Mum around.     In captivity it is not unusual to get 2 joeys per female per year.   For the best breeding only one male should be kept per enclosure, but more than one female can be kept if the enclosure is large enough.  The breeding group is territorial and new animals are not usually tolerated well – so be warned.     New animals need to be introduced slowly – e.g. by placing them in a smaller enclosure within the breeding enclosure for some weeks to get everyone used to each other with a barrier in-between.

 

If you ever need to move an animal, this is perhaps best done in hessian bags or pet-packs filled with straw.     Put some food in too to give the animals something to eat during the journey.

 

Rufous Bettongs are simple to feed – they will eat small quantities of fresh green grass, most fruits (such as apples, pears), vegetables (particularly root ones such as carrots, potatoes, etc but also cabbage, sweet corn), various grains (such as rolled oats, sunflower seed), nuts (almonds, peanuts), commercial kangaroo pellets, mushrooms and even live food (such as longicorn larva, and other insects).    I regularly feed my animals dog pellets and dried bread also.  Naturally fresh water must be available at all times.

 
 
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