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World Numbat Day


 
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Saturday 7 November is the inaugural World Numbat Day.
    
The endangered numbat has suffered a significant decline since European settlement, primarily due to predation by introduced predators such as cats and foxes. Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) protects almost 30% of the remaining Numbat population in two large, self-sustaining populations at Scotia and Yookamurra Wildlife Sanctuaries. Felicity L’Hotellier, South-East Field Ecologist with AWC, talks about this little known native mammal.

The numbat has reddish brown fur, becoming darker on its rump, with a series of white bands along its body width. There is also a black eye stripe from its ears to its snout which holds a long, sticky tongue for feeding. It is well camouflaged and tough to spot in the bush. When they move around their bottlebrush tail often sticks up in the air, making them easier to spot. The average weight of a numbat is 500g, it measures around 27cm from its snout to its rump and its tail adds another 20cm in length. Numbats live for up to five years in the wild. Apart from mating season, these marsupials are solitary.

Like other marsupials they give birth to underdeveloped young, generally four at a time, after 14 days gestation. The young attach themselves to teats, but numbats do not have true pouches like many other marsupials so the young must cling onto their mother’s belly for about six months. The mother will then deposit the joeys in a burrow, suckling them during the day. After another few months the joeys will come out of the burrow and begin to feed for themselves before eventually moving away from home.

 

Image by courtesy of Australian Wildlife Conservancy; photographer W Lawler.

    

 
Numbats are diurnal (active during the day), unlike most other marsupials which are nocturnal (active at night). They feed solely on termites, with each numbat eating 15-20 thousand termites per day. They spend most of their time digging shallow excavations in the soil before licking up termites from subsurface termite galleries. In summer the termites are active near the soil surface in the morning and afternoon, but in winter they are active during the middle of the day. Numbats are most active when their prey (termites) are active.

At the time of European colonisation, numbats had a broad distribution: from the south-west of Western Australia, across South Australia and southern Northern Territory, through to north-western Victoria and western New South Wales. By the 1980s, they had disappeared from most of their former range. Now, there are less than 1,000 individuals left. The most significant threat to Australia’s small to medium sized native mammals such as the numbat is predation by introduced predators (foxes, cats). Feral cats are killing tens of millions of native animals every day. While 1080 baiting can keep fox numbers down, there is currently no way to effective mechanism for landscape-scale control of feral cats. However AWC is leading the way in developing practical strategies to reduce the impact of feral cats. At Scotia Wildlife Sanctuary, located a couple of hours south of Broken Hill, AWC has established the largest feral-free area on mainland Australia – all cats, foxes, goats and rabbits have been eradicated from 8,000 hectares. It has a six foot high fence which is reinforced by a skirt at the bottom to prevent digging, and electric wires along the top. Safe within the feral-free area, AWC reintroduced of a number of locally extinct species including numbats, bilbies and bridled nailtail wallabies. Scotia is part of a network of large, feral cat-free areas AWC has established across country to protect and restore wild populations of Australia’s most vulnerable mammals.

Soon AWC will reintroduce numbats to a 7,800 hectare feral predator-free area at Mt Gibson Wildlife Sanctuary in Western Australia. The project is expected to increase the global numbat population by more than 20%. Until there is an effective way to control feral cats, these conservation-fenced mainland islands are critical to the survival of many of our native species.

Saturday the 7th November is the inaugural World Numbat Day.

Text by Victor Barry, November 2015

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