Small 'eco-engineers' return to the mainland

A small ‘kangaroo-rat’ called the Eastern Bettong (Bettongia gaimardi) was once widespread in south-eastern Australia. Predators such as foxes and cats, and land clearing to make way for agriculture, caused the extinction of the species on the mainland in the 1920s. Also known as the Tasmanian Bettong, the small mammal luckily remains common in the eastern part of Tasmania, but the introduction of red foxes to the island state poses a major threat to the species.

As part of a long-term research project, Eastern Bettongs have returned to the Australian mainland for the first time in 80 years. Associate Professor Adrian Manning is leading the Mulligans Flat and Goorooyarroo Woodland Experiment in partnership with the ACT Government and CSIRO. Manning says the study aims to understand ways of restoring the structure and function of temperate woodlands to increase biodiversity.

In an effort to re-establish the once abundant Eastern Bettongs on the eastern seaboard, a team of scientists and land managers has recently transferred 19 of the bettongs from Tasmania to specialist breeding facilities at the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve in the ACT. The research team will move these small mammals to Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary near Canberra in autumn 2012. “Tasmanian Bettongs act like ‘ecosystem engineers’,” Manning explains. “While digging soil looking for truffles they move fungal spores, improve soil conditions and encourage excellent water infiltration – these processes are essential elements for a healthy ecosystem.”

The research team is working to better understand the impact of these reintroduced animals on the woodland ecosystem. Manning is particularly interested to find out whether these bettongs can serve a role in repairing critically endangered box gum grassy woodlands. “The site at Mulligans Flat where we will reintroduce the bettongs is an ‘outdoor laboratory’ for learning about restoration of temperate woodlands,” he says. “Mulligans Flat is a public reserve surrounded by a predator-proof fence.”

According to Manning, this project will be a catalyst for changing thinking about how we rebuild lost ecosystems. “This project provides an innovative example of how researchers and government can work together to deliver a more evidence-based approach to conservation,” he says. “This kind of collaborative work takes longer to set up but I think you get greater returns in the long run.”

Photo by Dave Watts