Wildlife Research and Management Pty Ltd
The Burrowing Bettong (Bettongia lesueur)
In 1817 the French ship Uranie anchored off Dirk Hartog Island in Shark Bay as part
of its exploration of the west coast of Australia. Its crew collected a specimen
of a small kangaroo unknown to science. It was subsequently described and named after
Charles Le Sueur, the artist and naturalist on a previous French expedition to the
islands in 1802. It became known as Lesueur's rat-
This species is unique among the kangaroos in that it shelters underground in burrows or large communal warren systems. Bettongs are approximately the size of a wild rabbit, are stocky in build and pugnacious in disposition. They are strictly nocturnal, sheltering during the day in burrows and foraging widely at night in search of seeds, fruits, flowers, tubers and roots and succulent leaves and grasses. They will often climb into low shrubs to feed.
Bettongs are capable of producing three young per year in captivity. They have a gestation period of 21 days and give birth to a tiny, unhaired and undeveloped young. Females will then mate again, on the day after the birth and the resulting fertilized egg remains in arrested development in the uterus of the mother until the pouch young is weaned. Pouch life is about 115 days (approximately 4 months). Dominant males establish a harem of females which they defend vigorously against other males. Both sexes have well developed dominance hierarchies.
At the time of the French expedition the burrowing bettong had one of the widest
distributions of any species of kangaroo. Its range extended from the western slopes
of the Great Dividing Ranges in eastern Australia to the west coast, and from Broome
in the tropical north to Albany and Adelaide on the southern coast. Many of the first
explorers encountered and commented upon the distinctive warren systems of the bettong.
These were characterised by dozens of entrances dug under breaks in surface rock
with extensive high mounds of spoil around. Burke and Wills encountered them in southern
New South Wales on their south-
Shaded area indicates the former distribution of the burrowing bettong
The burrowing bettong now survives only as three remnant populations on off-
It is likely that bettongs were eliminated from mainland Australia by a combination
of factors: the alteration of the vegetation understorey by introduced grazers such
as sheep and rabbits; direct competition for food and shelter from rabbits; predation
from introduced species such as foxes and cats; and changes in land-
Between 1988 and 1990 CSIRO conducted surveys of Bernier, Dorre, Barrow, and Boodie Islands to establish the size and stability of populations of endangered mammals. Surveys in 1988 and 1989 revealed a population of some 5,000 bettongs distributed between three islands. Barrow Island (240 square kilometres) contained the greatest number with some 3,500 animals. Subsequent surveys have revealed that these populations fluctuate strongly in size, building up steadily over several years of average to above average rainfall and then crashing in drought.
An ambitious plan to return the burrowing bettong to mainland Australia began in
1992 with the transfer of animals from Dorre Island to Heirisson Prong, a peninsula
which juts into Shark Bay. The project was a co-
In 1999 10 bettongs from the Heirisson Prong project were transferred to the Roxby
Downs Arid Recovery Project in central South Australia. They were released into a
conservation area of 12 square kilometres and protected by a predator-
Adapted from Australian Natural History (1992) 24:22-
The barrier fence that excludes predators from Heirisson Prong
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