Current Issue #488

Research helps add new branches to the 'coots' family tree

Research helps add new branches to the 'coots' family tree

The shy Australian native bandicoot is expanding its family tree thanks to a new grant allowing deeper research into the species.

Professor Steve Cooper and Dr Terry Bertozzi from the South Australian Museum and Dr Kenny Travouillon from the Western Australian Museum will study living and extinct bandicoots, with the aim of defining species.

Professor Cooper says the study will significantly deepen understanding of the bandicoot.

“Until we commenced this research, scientists had only been able to examine the physical appearance and a tiny genetic component of bandicoots, which led people to believe that there weren’t many bandicoot species and sub-species alive in Australia,” Cooper says.

Because of the lack of scientific data, it was believed that populations in South Australia were the same as those in other parts of the country.

“The limitations of past techniques meant we were led to believe that bandicoots from South Australian populations in the Mount Lofty Ranges and Kangaroo Island were the same as those living in Tasmania or eastern Australia, therefore, we only had to focus on keeping one of those populations alive.

“The Australian Biological Resources Study grant, together with a grant from Bioplatforms Australia’s Oz Mammals Genomics Initiative, enables us to build on our existing research.

“We are now researching thousands of genes, including historical samples from museum collections, and this work has already resulted in us finding that there are more species and sub-species of bandicoots in Australia than previously thought.

“This in-depth research is vital, because maintaining genetic diversity allows our native species to adapt to a changing environment and avoid extinction,” Cooper says.

Using samples from the South Australian Museum’s world-renowned tissue collection, along with tissues and specimens from museums across Australia, the research project will hopefully help build a robust native bandicoot family tree.

Dr Terry Bertozzi,  a research scientist at the South Australian Museum and Affiliate lecturer in the genetics and evolution at the University of Adelaide, will analyse the research project’s findings once the study is completed. It is hoped the new data will help conservationists determine where to focus their work with bandicoot populations in the future.

Life of a bandicoot

Bandicoots live in native forest areas in the south-east of SA, the Mt Lofty Ranges and Fleurieu Peninsula, Kangaroo Island and some small islands near the Eyre Peninsula (St. Francis, Franklin islands). Genetic analyses suggest that the population in the south-east is the same subspecies found in Victoria and NSW, but it is genetically very distinct from bandicoots in all the other SA populations.

Bandicoots are omnivores, eating a variety of foods including subterranean invertebrates, such as worms, in leaf litter or soil. They are also known to eat funghi, plants and even small vertebrates such as skinks and frogs.

They sleep in nests made of grass, leaf litter and soil, usually made in dense vegetation such as under yaccas or bracken.

Their average body weight is about 850g for males and 700g for females. By comparison, an adult domestic cat is around 3.5 to 4.5kg.

Both feral cats and foxes are major predators of bandicoots, which is why the marsupials maintain healthy populations in areas such as Kangaroo Island and the St. Francis and Franklin islands, but they are struggling on mainland Australia.

Research by Dr. Jasmin Packer in the Mt. Lofty Ranges has shown that blackberry patches can help bandicoots escape these predators and move around the landscape, helping to connect populations of bandicoots in the hills, which is important for maintaining their genetic variation.

The Adelaide Review is a media sponsor of the South Australian Museum

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