Travel Across The World For Bandicoot Treasures

Main Club September 2018 Meeting

Dr Kenny Travouillon, Curator of Mammalogy at the WA Museum, originally worked on Riversleigh marsupial fossils for his PhD. When he first started as the Mammalian Curator at the museum he went through a box of specimens of the Western Barred Bandicoot (Perameles bougainville) and observed lots of variation within and wondered if they were all the same species.

He received a Churchill Fellowship which provides funding for a trip away from Australia to bring knowledge back into the country. Kenny’s idea was to go to Europe and the USA to look at the earliest specimens of bandicoots that were collected in Australia—re-examining the specimens’ morphology and also taking genetic samples for analysis. At that time, the explorers and naturalists sent the animals they found to their home institutions and this is where they were formally described and are now stored.

WANats members examining specimens with Kenny (centre)  (Photo: JoHn)

In the British Natural History Museum, Kenny saw a rare Lesser Bilby (Macrotis leucura) mount and the original sketch by Gould of the Pig-footed Bandicoot (Chaeropus ecaudatu).

In Paris at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle he saw the oldest mount of the Pig-footed Bandicoot from 1845—it was exchanged from Gould’s collection for hummingbirds, after he had lost interest in marsupials! The museum had three shelves of bandicoot specimens, all mounted.

In Genoa, Italy at the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale Kenny saw early specimens of the Western Barred Bandicoot, one of which required the removal of an exhibit that was blocking access to the display cabinet. The specimen was labelled P. fasciata but had been subsequently lumped with P. bougainville.

In Munich at the Zoologische Staatssammlung München, there was an early skull of P. myosuros, which had been mislabelled as P. bougainville and had been thought to be lost during World War II.

Kenny also visited four museums in the USA, including the American Natural History Museum, New York and the Smithsonian, Washington.

During the presentation Kenny also discussed the varying attitudes to extinction in the Australian community, which he ranked from ‘Let’s just watch sport’ to ‘What can we learn from the past to protect the future?’

Kenny re-examined the extinct Pig-footed Bandicoot—originally described by Ogilby from a drawing by Major Mitchell—in which it didn’t have a tail, hence the species name ecaudatu (cauda being the Latin word for tail.) It walked on its toes, with two on the front and one rear toe, with two vestigial toes. Early notes on its behaviour indicate it rested on its hind legs like a kangaroo. On examination of multiple species from multiple areas, a new central species has now been identified with different skull morphology, habitat and behaviour—though both species were deemed ‘delicious’ by the early collectors! Both are now extinct, with the newly identified one perhaps persisting until the mid-1950s in central South Australia.

Western Barred Bandicoot (Perameles bougainville) (Photo: AWC Gina Barnett)

Kenny re-examined specimens of the Western Barred Bandicoot (Perameles bougainville) (above, AWC Gina Barnett), which is now only found on islands in Shark Bay and reintroduced at a managed mainland sanctuary owned by AWC. The first specimen was collected by the French in the Shark Bay region in 1824; then one was collected in the Swan River region in 1841 and one from York in 1844, collected by Gould. On examination of the different specimens from WA to NSW it was found to be a complex of six distinct species—five of which are now extinct—with collective distributions spanning two thirds of the country. Three were previously described in the 1800s and one new species, P. papillon, (below, WA Museum) named after the butterfly-like markings on its rear flank, was once found in the Nullarbor region.

Perameles papillon, (Artwork by Rob Fleming WA Museum)

Differences were found in skull morphology, especially in the auditory bulla, which can be used to infer acuteness of hearing. Some of the now extinct species probably had much better hearing than the remaining Western Barred Bandicoot which has only survived on predator-free offshore islands. That doesn’t necessarily bode well for any wider release into unfenced mainland regions. As mentioned earlier, Western Barred Bandicoots have been translocated to South Australia with these new findings showing they are an introduction rather than a re-introduction, as they are not the same species as found there previously.

Kenny also discussed was the elevation of the local Quenda to a fully separate species— it is now Isoodon fusciventer, where previously it was known as a sub-species of the South Brown Bandicoot (I. obesulus) and called I. obesulus fusciventer. Genetic studies have shown it is more closely related to the Golden Bandicoot (I. auratus) than the Southern Brown.

Taxonomy can at times be a topic that is technical and dry, but Kenny brought it to life with tales of mislabelled specimens, items possibly lost during WWII, and accounts of early naturalists all providing input to a modern understanding of the bandicoots, along with morphological and genetic analysis. For more information see the Museum Press Release and the technical Paper that resulted.

Ry Beaver