Saturday, October 8, 2011

Pig-Footed Bandicoot (Chaeropus ecaudatus)


Australia was once home to a unique collection of beasts, including giant marsupials and fearsome reptiles. However, scurrying around the big feet of this megafauna were a huge number of small marsupials that evolved to fill most of the ecological niches occupied by placental mammals in other parts of the world. There were rabbitlike marsupials, tiny mouselike animals, even a marsupial equivalent of a mole, to name but a few. Some of these animals can still be found today, but many ended up going the same way as the other long gone denizens of Australia.

The pig-footed bandicoot was one of these animals. For millions of years, this odd little marsupial, which was no bigger than a kitten, lived throughout Australia, but in recent times, it became restricted to the arid and semiarid inland plains. This bandicoot, with its rabbit ears, was probably a familiar sight to the Australian Aborigines as it hopped and bounded around the plains.

Perhaps the oddest thing about this marsupial was the four spindly legs that supported its plump little body. It is from the animal’s feet that we get its common name. On its forefeet, there were only two functional toes with hoofl  ike nails, remarkably similar to the feet of a pig, but in miniature. The hind limbs were also highly modified as the second and third toe were fused together, and only the fourth toe, which ended in a nail like a tiny horse’s hoof, was used in locomotion. With such highly modified limbs, the pig-footed bandicoot was undoubtedly a running animal, and the gait it used depended on how fast it was moving. When it was skulking around looking for food, the pig foot moved in a series of bunny hops—taking its weight on its forelimbs and pulling its back legs along. When it chose to up the pace, the hind limbs were moved alternately and, according to Aborigines, when it really wanted to move, it stretched out and took to a smooth gallop. Not only was the pig foot quick, but it also had a lot of stamina and could run at full speed for long periods of time. 

Apart from being very fleet of foot, the pig foot was also said to be more dependent on plant food than the other types of bandicoot, which are generally insectivorous marsupials. In the wild, they subsisted on grass seeds, but in captivity, they ate a range of food, including  lettuce, bulbs, and grasshoppers. It is said that during the hottest part of the day, they would seek refuge from the sun’s rays in a grass nest, only venturing out to seek food and mates in the early evening. If the other bandicoots are anything to go by, the pig foot must have had a very short gestation. Baby bandicoots spend only about 12 days in their mother’s womb—the shortest time for any mammal—and they are also unique for being attached to their mother by a placentalike organ. The pig foot’s short gestation probably ended in a very short birth—which, for living bandicoots, is around 10 minutes. The tiny babies crept to their mother’s rear-facing pouch, and although there were eight teats in this furry pocket, there were no more than four babies in each litter. After the young had outgrown the pouch, the female left them in a grass nest until they were ready to follow her on forays for food in the warmth of the evening sun. 

What happened to the pig foot? The last known definite specimen was collected in 1901, and even long before this date, it was never considered to be a common species. We do know that it was hunted by Australian Aborigines for its meat, which was regarded as a delicacy, and its tail brush, which was sometimes worn as a decoration. The extinction of some of Australia’s other native animals has been blamed on Aborigines, but the pig-footed bandicoot coexisted with the Aborigines for thousands of years. The decline and extinction of this unique marsupial coincides with the spread of Europeans through Australia. For thousands of years, Aborigines practiced brush burning to clear land and encourage new plant growth. Many species of smaller marsupial profited from this because of the food it provided, not only in terms of fresh plant matter, but also in terms of the smaller animals that were forced out of hiding by the smoke and flames. With the arrival of Europeans, all this changed, as the Aborigines themselves were pushed toward extinction. The way the Aborigines managed the land ended, and any native animals that had previously benefited were faced with some tough times. As the Europeans swept aside the old Aboriginal ways, they replaced them with their own methods of taming the harsh land. They brought modern agriculture and a menagerie of domestic animals, including dogs, cats, foxes, sheep, goats, and cattle. To a seasoned predator, such as a cat or fox, the pig-footed bandicoot must have been a delightful morsel; however, hunting by introduced species was probably only a minor factor in their extinction. Agriculture probably had the greatest eff  ect on this species. Herds of sheep, goats, and cattle grazed the delicate plains of inland Australia, lands that simply could not tolerate the intensive chomping of countless mouths, not to mention the hordes of hooves, which churned the ground into a dust bowl. Not long after Europeans first settled Australia,  the pig-footed bandicoot joined the long roll call of extinct marsupials.

Source: Wikipedia


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