Bilby (or Dalgyte)

 (Macrotis lagotis)

by
C.F.H. Jenkins

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The Dalgyte or Rabbit-Eared Bandicoot (Macrotis lagotis), known also in the eastern states as the Bilby and the pinky, was once wide-spread in the interior and lighter rainfall areas of Australia. 

 

The animal measures about 400 millimetres in length, with the tail occupying a further 200 millimetres. The ears are thin and rabbit-like, the nose long and pointed and the grey fur soft and silky. The tail is black at the base and white and tufted at the tip. 

 

In the early days of settlement, the Dalgyte was plentiful in what is now the wheat belt, and no entirely satisfactory explanation has been presented for the population crash which occurred about 50 years ago. An infectious disease which depleted many animals about the turn of last century probably played it’s part, but extensive clearing for agriculture and the spread of the fox and the feral cat must have helped. Another important factor was the control campaign against the rabbit, which involved not only poisoning (probably harmless to the dalgyte), but burrow fumigation and ripping. Anything that looked like a rabbit burrow was treated and so the harmless dalgyte was a frequent, if unintended, victim. 

 

Although Dalgytes have vanished from many of their former haunts, evidence of their earlier presence still exists in the form of old disused burrows. I noticed one of these in a farm paddock at Northam at least 20 years after the last dalgyte had vanished from the district. Dalgyte colonies still survive in the North-west and the Warburton Ranges and the World Wildlife Fund recently made funds available for a special study of these isolated groups.  

 

Fortunately, the dalgyte is very well adapted to arid conditions and may be able to make a last-ditch stand in the dry interior. Their nocturnal habits and deep burrows are a protection from daytime extremes of temperature and the fact that plugs of soil are often found blocking the tunnel suggests that this is a further adaptation to reduce evaporation. Even the large rabbit-like ears may have a special use. Thin broad ears are found in the fennec, or desert fox of Africa, as well as in several other desert animals and tests have shown that these ears act as a kind of radiator, allowing the animal to lose heat from the expanded surface, which is very well supplied with  blood vessels. My first experience of the dalgyte was in the Northam district in 1926. 

 

Dalgytes were common at the time and were regarded as a nuisance by some farmers, who mistakenly believed that when the animals burrowed in a paddock, they were eating the roots of the crop. In actual fact, the creatures were digging in search of root damaging insects and I soon learned to distinguish the conical scratchings of the dalgyte, so common around trees and bushes, from the one-sided scrapings of destructive rabbits. 

 

Few animals are better adapted for burrowing than the dalgyte: it’s fore feet are provided with long powerful claws, and the pouch, which is quite well developed, opens backwards so that the mother need have no fear of giving her offspring a shower of sand when digging for food. The burrows have but one opening and usually descend in a spiral, often to a depth of almost two metres. Pioneer naturalist grazier, Bruce Leake, recorded that the Aboriginal women had great difficulty in capturing dalgytes for food as the animals could dig as fast as their would-be captors, and the hunt would resolve itself into an endurance test, with the dalgyte the usual winner. My own observations strongly support this, for even with the help of my brother and a post-hold shovel instead of an Aboriginal digging stick, I never succeeded in unearthing a dalgyte from its burrow and all my captures were made with strategically set traps

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