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Endangered Species: Quokka

Marsupial: Swamp Wallaby baby, Eastern Australia
Marsupial: Swamp Wallaby baby, Eastern Australia
Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

We can all name a species that we know is endangered. The elephant, the tiger, the ocelot, white or black rhinos. We also know that to experience unusual species we can go to Australia, the only place we can find the natural habitat for koalas, kangaroos, the platypus, and the quokka. Huh? Yes. Quokka (Setonix brachyurus). It is the only member of the genus Setonix, known locally as the "kangaroo rat". It was one of the first Australian mammals to be seen by Europeans in the 1700's. The species is not only native to Australia, but is also endangered.

Compared to most rodents we see, it is rather large. The head and body length is 15 to 35 inches, the tail is 9 to 12 inches, and it weighs 5 to 11 pounds: about the size of a domestic cat. It has course fur that is grizzled brown fading to buff underneath. Quokka has a stocky build, rounded ears, and a short broad head. Its habitat is the tip of Southern Australia in a relatively small, protected area called Two Peoples Bay Nature Preserve, and some of the smaller islands off the west coast, particularly Rottnest Island (just off Perth) and Bald Island near Albany. It has no fear of humans, especially on Rottnest Island where it approaches them closely. It is, however illegal for members of the public to handle the animals in any way. If anyone is caught infringing on this edict, it carries a fine of at least $300.00 imposed by the Rottnest Island Authority. Prosecution of the offense can cost an additional $2000,00. Quokkas thrive in dense swamps, heath, thickets, low forest, and waterside areas. Because of the difficulty in accessing their habitats, the numbers of surviving animals is hard to determine, however, the last count stood at 7,850 to 17,150 mature adults. Not nearly the number of other rodents like mice, rats, even squirrels.

Like other marsupials of the macropod family such as the kangaroo and wallaby, the female quokka has a pouch in which she carries her "joey". The uniqueness of the quokka is that she is equipped with a pre-embryonic structure called a blastocyst which develops into an embryo if her "joey" dies before becoming independent enough to leave her pouch. Sort of like having a "spare heir". Herbivorous, nature has also endowed the quokka with bacteria in its digestive system capable of breaking down the poor-quality vegetation in its environment. Nocturnal and living mostly on the ground, but able to climb trees and small shrubs, this little marsupial browses for leaves and grass and searches out the best shelter from the sun in the scorching Australian summer. You'd think that with all of the physical advantages with which the quokka seems to be equipped, it would be far from endangered. However, all of its natural advantages are of little help against the threats of introduced species such as foxes, feral cats, and dogs, as well as the native dingoes and other predators, habitat loss from the clearing and burning of swamp lands, and disease.

Yes, it's a rodent, and many people have no tolerance for rodents and think of them as pests that the world would be better off without. Keep in mind though, that every creature has its place in the scheme of things. Even rodents have their place in the ecosystem. They manage their environment to some extent by what they eat, and they provide food for others that depend on the quokka's availability to feed themselves and their young. It would be a shame to see such a unique animal become extinct because of a lack of interest, or an ignorance of their existence.