Tag Archives: marsupials

Episode 284: Billy Possum and Teddy Bear



Thanks to Pranav and Zachary for their suggestions this week, where we learn the story behind two cuddly toys and the animals that inspired them!

The cartoon that inspired the toy:

My own teddy bear:

An American black bear (not William Taft although yes, there is a resemblance, including a willingness to eat entire possums in one sitting):

William Taft:

A Virginia opossum:

A possum with babies!

Stop trying to make Billy Possum a thing:

Admittedly it was pretty cute:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn about two cuddly animals, one of which you’ve definitely heard of, the other you might not have. Oh wait, you’ve heard of both animals for sure—but you might not have heard about the toys based on the animals. Thanks to Pranav and Zachary for their suggestions.

The president of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century was Theodore Roosevelt, who served from 1901 to 1909. He was sometimes called Teddy instead of Theodore, although he didn’t actually like the nickname. Roosevelt is widely considered to have been a very good president, as well as an interesting and sometimes eccentric man, but his main contribution to history as far as most people are concerned is the teddy bear.

Roosevelt was an active man who spent a lot of time horseback riding, playing tennis, hiking, swimming, boxing, and lots of other things. He also liked to read, spoke several languages, and wrote poetry—and he was an avid hunter and would travel the world to kill things. That’s what he was doing in November 1902, when the governor of Mississippi invited him on a bear hunting trip.

The hunting party killed several bears that day, but Roosevelt hadn’t shot anything. Some of the president’s attendants decided to help things along, and they chased a bear down with hounds until it was exhausted, beat it until it was almost dead, and tied it to a tree. I know, this is awful. I’m sorry. Then they said, “Hey, Mr. President, we found you a bear to shoot.”

Not only did Roosevelt refuse to kill the bear, he was angry at the people who had treated it so badly. He requested that the poor animal be shot to put it out of its misery, since by that point it was already dying from its treatment.

Because Roosevelt was the president, everything he did made its way into the newspapers, including this event. A political cartoonist used the bear hunt in a cartoon, only instead of an adult bear he made the bear a cute little cub. This inspired an inventor named Morris Michtom and his wife Rose to make a little bear cub doll to sell at their candy shop in Brooklyn, New York. They labeled it “Teddy’s bear” and the rest is history.

Most teddy bears don’t look much like an actual American black bear. The black bear lives in forested areas throughout much of North America and used to be even more widespread, but was hunted to extinction in many areas. It’s more closely related to the Asian black bear than it is to other bears found in North America, including the grizzly and polar bears. Its fur is usually black although some black bears are gray, various shades of brown, or sometimes even a rare cream color. The biggest American black bear ever measured was just barely under 8 feet long, or 2.41 meters, and probably weighed 1,100 pounds, or 500 kg. Most black bears are a lot smaller than that, though.

Black bears mate in summer but the fertilized egg cells don’t start developing until November. This gives the female plenty of time to gain lots of healthy weight before she finds a safe place to spend the winter. Black bears hibernate in cold weather, although scientists are still debating whether its metabolic changes constitute true hibernation. A bear will use a hollow tree or small cave as a den, or will dig a den. It gets comfortable in its den and soon its heart rate starts to drop until it only beats about 8 times a minute. Its body temperature stays about the same as usual and unlike many other animals that hibernate, it’s not sound asleep the whole time. It spends a lot of time awake and may even get up and move around, maybe even go out on nice days and look for food. Mostly, though, a hibernating bear doesn’t eat or drink, and it doesn’t need to defecate or urinate. Once the weather starts warming up, it emerges from its den and spends a few weeks just roaming around, eating whatever it can find while its body returns to non-hibernation status.

Babies are born during the winter, and they’re extremely small and underdeveloped at birth, only about 8 inches long on average, or 20 cm. A mother bear usually has two or three cubs, sometimes just one and occasionally four. The mother bear nurses her babies and keeps them warm through the rest of the winter, and once the weather warms up they’re big enough to come outside with her for the first time.

The American black bear is an omnivore, but it eats a lot more plant materials than it does meat. It especially likes berries and other fruit. It also eats a lot of insects, including ants, bees, and an especially nasty type of wasp called a yellow jacket. The bear has thick fur to help protect it from stings, but it also eats up the insects really fast. You can’t sting a bear if a bear just crunched you up with its big teeth. The black bear will catch fish whenever it can, will eat fawns and other baby animals when it can find them, will eat small animals like rodents when it gets the chance, will eat eggs when it comes across a nest, and will eat carrion, especially when it first emerges from hibernation.

Although black bears are dangerous, they’re also shy and avoid people when they can. The exception is when they get used to people food, either because they were given food by people, or because they found food that people left. That’s why it’s so incredibly important to never feed wild animals, especially dangerous ones like bears, and why you should learn how to properly hang your backpack from a tree when you’re camping so a bear can’t get it. If a bear learns to associate humans with food, it will become aggressive. When that happens, forest rangers have to make the hard decision to kill the bear before it hurts or kills a person.

While other species of bear growl, the American black bear doesn’t. The closest it comes to a growl is a deep call it makes in its throat, and it also makes huffing sounds, moans and grunts, squeals, clicks and pops that it makes with its mouth, including tongue clicking, and when it’s comfortable a bear may make a rumbling sound something like a hum or a purr.

This is what a black bear sounds like:

[bear sounds]

So, back to teddy bears. Plush toy bears were incredibly popular while Teddy Roosevelt was in office, but toy manufacturers were pretty sure the fad would drop in popularity once Roosevelt was no longer president. William H. Taft became president after Roosevelt, and in January 1909 he attended a banquet in Atlanta, Georgia where the main course served was possum and sweet potatoes.

These days most people don’t eat the Virginia opossum, more commonly called the possum in the United States, but it used to be considered a delicacy. Taft wolfed down an entire roast possum by himself, so fast that a doctor sitting at the table with him said he needed to slow down. Taft liked his food and he especially liked possum, and when his supporters presented him with a plush toy possum after the meal, he found it amusing.

But the people who’d given him the toy possum weren’t playing around. Ha ha, get it? Playing? Toy? They were certain their possum was going to be the next big thing. They formed a company called the Georgia Billy Possum Company and advertised the toys with the slogan, “Good-bye, Teddy Bear. Hello, Billy Possum.” They also released postcards, pins, songs and sheet music, and all sorts of other stuff branded with Billy Possum in hopes of hyping up their toy and becoming millionaires.

The problem, of course, is that while everyone cared about the poor bear that Roosevelt refused to kill, no one cared that Taft could eat a whole roast possum in one sitting. Besides, Taft was boring. Billy Possum never took off and people kept their teddy bears.

In many articles about Billy Possum, the whole idea of a possum being cute enough to make a cuddly toy from is laughed at. But possums are adorable! The Virginia opossum is a nocturnal marsupial that lives throughout much of the eastern United States, especially the southeast, and just about all of Mexico. It’s gray and white with a bare pink nose and bare pink toes, and it also has a long prehensile tail that’s mostly bare of fur that it uses to help it climb around in trees. Most possums are about the size of a cat but with much shorter legs. It’s the only marsupial that lives in North America.

The possum is omnivorous and eats fruit, carrion, eggs, nuts, vegetables, insects, and other small animals like mice and frogs. It’s resistant to the venom of snakes, bees, and scorpions, and will happily eat all three of these types of animals. It’s even less picky than the bear about what it eats and will genuinely eat pretty much anything, from birdseed and cat food it finds in people’s yards, to crayfish and baby rabbits, to ticks and persimmons, to slugs and snails.

The possum doesn’t live very long, and pretty much anything that can catch it will eat it, but it reproduces efficiently. Like other marsupials, the female has two vaginas and wombs and the male has a double penis. The female can have more than 20 babies at a time, although 8 or 9 is more common, and like other marsupials they’re born extremely early. The newborn babies are the size of a bean or a honeybee, but they’re strong enough to crawl into their mother’s pouch to find a teat. Since the possum has 13 teats, and each baby needs a teat to stay latched onto while it finishes developing, even if the mother has more than 13 babies, only 13 babies will survive.

The babies stay in their mother’s pouch for 2 1/2 months, at which point they start riding on her back instead. She carries them around for the next couple of months, teaching them how to be possums.

The possum has one real defense against predators, which it only resorts to when running away or hissing with its fur puffed up doesn’t help. It will flop onto its side with its tongue hanging out but its eyes open, and its heart rate drops and its breathing becomes shallow and slow. It also expels a stinky fluid from its anal glands. In short, it looks, acts, and smells like it’s already dead. It’s called “playing possum,” and it actually works pretty well…until the possum plays dead when threatened by a car. That’s why possums are so often killed by cars.

Many people think the possum is dirty or carries diseases, but this isn’t actually true. The possum grooms its fur and keeps it clean, and it’s actually less likely to have a disease than many other mammals. It’s even resistant to rabies, possibly because its body temperature is lower than that of most mammals and this helps keep the rabies virus from reproducing.

The Virginia opossum also has a secret that scientists only recently discovered. Its fur glows bright pink under ultraviolet light. No one is sure why.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 274: Mystery Big Cats in Australia



Thanks to Kristie and Jason, we’re going to learn about some mystery big cats reported in Australia, in particular Victoria.

Further reading:

Official big cat hunt declared a bust, so why do people keep seeing them?

Further watching:

Thylacine video from 1933, colorized

You’ll probably need to enlarge this but it’s a still from a 2018 video purportedly showing a mystery big cat, but in this frame you can see the ears are pointy, which is a sure sign of a domestic cat:

A melanistic (black) leopard and regular leopards (picture from this site). If you zoom in you can see the spot pattern on the black leopard:

A puma/cougar/mountain lion. Note the lack of spots:

A thylacine. Note the lack of spots but presence of stripes:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week is Kristie and Jason’s episode. They want everyone to learn about mysterious big cats in Australia!

Australia, of course, is home to many wonderful animals, but almost all of the native mammals are marsupials. There are no native felids of any kind in Australia, even in the fossil record. This is because Australia split off from the rest of the world’s landmasses when the supercontinent Gondwana broke apart. Marsupials actually first arose in South America and spread to Australia when the two landmasses were connected. Then, around 180 million years ago, South America and Africa split off from the rest of Gondwana, including Australia. Most of South America’s marsupials went extinct as placental mammals arose and became more and more numerous, but Australia was on its own starting about 30 to 50 million years ago. Marsupials never had to compete with placental mammals during most of that time, except for bats, and the marsupials thrived.

Humans first populated Australia at least 41,000 years ago and probably more like 65,000 years ago. The first dingoes, a type of dog, were introduced around 5,000 years ago. The first European sighting of Australia was in 1606, and less than 200 years later the British colonized the continent, bringing with them invasive species like cats, rats, cattle, sheep, foxes, rabbits, deer, and lots more, which have driven many indigenous animals to extinction. But while domestic cats are common in Australia, as far as we know no one has ever deliberately released enough big cats to form a breeding population.

In that case, though, why are there so many reports of big cats in parts of Australia?

If you remember way back in episode 52, where we talked about big cats in Britain, there were lots of stories and a certain amount of evidence that individual big cats were occasionally found in the country. Ultimately, though, there’s no proof of a breeding population of big cats. The same is more or less true in Australia, but Australia is so much bigger and so much less populated than Britain, it would be easy for a small population of big cats to hide. And maybe they’re not actually big cats but some other animal, something that is native to Australia.

Kristie and Jason have lots of experience searching for big cats in central Victoria, Australia. They even helped with the research of a book about big cat sightings. Victoria is in southeastern Australia and is the smallest state. If you walked south from central Victoria to the coast, and then got on a boat and kept going south, you’d run into Tasmania. If you walked north instead, eventually you’d come to New South Wales but that is going to be a long walk. Victoria is mostly temperate and rainy but has tall mountains, semi-arid plains, and lots of rivers.

As Kristie pointed out, different parts of Australia have different stories about mystery big cats, but I’m mostly going to talk about sightings in Victoria, just to narrow it down.

To start us off, now that we have some background information, here’s a clip from the conversation I had with Kristie. The audio isn’t great, unfortunately, but it’s definitely interesting.

[quote of Kristie’s account:]

“Jason and I used to go puma hunting. It was very scary. So, there was this bloke we used to go and visit. I’m not going to name any names; I’m not even going to tell you exactly where he was other than he was in Castlemaine along a railway line, a disused railway line. So, the story goes that this man (let’s just take 80% of what he says with a grain of salt), he’d gone up to get a horse from a paddock outside their house that they lived in, on a dirt road near the railway. There was lots of long grass on the side of the road. He said he went to get the horse and was bringing the horse back to the house paddock, and he felt like he was being watched. Not a good feeling. And then he heard something that sounded like a growl coming from in the grass. And the horse had a bit of a moment. He continued on his way—he was safe, the horse was safe! No animals were hurt in the making of this story. From then on he said he and his wife would hear things walking around their house and it would just feel really weird. They would say that they actually saw these cats walking along the road.

“I would call Jason and we’d get on a motorbike and we’d go down, probably about a 5 or 10 minutes motorbike ride. Of course whenever we got there, there was nothing there. Occasionally you might see something on the dirt road, because there was a bit of fine dirt on there that maybe you could find a footprint on there.

“You would hear dogs bark, hear them off in the distance when whatever it was out there was on the move. It would actually follow the creek down and the railway line and you would get a succession of dog barks.”

Kristie went on to say that they’d even found and taken a plaster cast of a large paw print that looked different from a dog’s print, but the veterinarian they took it to wasn’t able to determine whether it was made by a big cat or just a dog.

She also talked about some other evidence that their friend gave as proof of big cats living in his paddock, including swirls in the long grass that looked like a cat had flattened the grass to sleep. In that case, she also pointed out that the same thing had happened in her own yard recently and that she was pretty sure it was caused by the wind. But here’s another clip from her about an experience she had that wasn’t so easy to explain:

[quote of Kristie’s account:]

“I spent one night out in a caravan that they had in their yard, just waiting, and I heard a cough. Pumas cough, but so do kangaroos, so I don’t know. I didn’t see any kangaroos. I like to think I heard a puma cough. I honestly don’t know what I heard.”

Kristie even thinks she spotted a big cat once as she and Jason rode by on a motorbike, but by the time she realized what she’d seen, it was long gone. She said it was a large black animal with a very long tail, much longer than a domestic cat’s tail.

One theory of big cat sightings is that they’re descendants of cougars, also called pumas or mountain lions, brought to Australia as mascots by American troops during World War II but released into the wild. While WWII units from various countries did often have mascots, they were usually dogs. A few mascots were domestic cats, there were a couple of pigs, birds, and donkeys, but mascots were almost always domesticated animals that a unit adopted even though they weren’t really supposed to have them. Wild animals were rare as mascots because they were hard to handle and hard to hide from officers. While there were certainly some big cats of various kinds brought to Australia by American soldiers and released when they started getting too big and dangerous to handle, or when they were found by officers, there wouldn’t have been enough to form a breeding population.

Besides, big cat sightings go back much earlier than the 1940s. Some people blame Americans again for these earlier stories, specifically American miners who came to Australia in the mid-19th century gold rush. Supposedly they brought pet cougars that either escaped or were released into the mountains. While miners did bring animals, they were almost always dogs or pack animals like mules.

More likely, though, any big cats escaped or released into the Australian bush in the olden days came from traveling circuses or exotic animal dealers. Even so, again, there just weren’t enough big cats of any given species to result in a breeding population. But, also again, people are definitely seeing something.

The most compelling evidence for big cats in Australia is attacks on large animals like horses, cattle, calves, and sheep. Australia doesn’t have very many large predators. Dingoes are rare or unknown in Victoria these days, as are feral pigs, foxes don’t typically hunt animals larger than a rabbit or chicken, and feral dogs usually leave telltale signs when they attack livestock.

In 2012, the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment commissioned a study of big cat sightings in the state. The study’s aim was to determine whether a breeding population of big cats might exist, and if so, what impact it was having on the native wildlife. The team examined historical and contemporary reports of big cats, and studied photos and videos and other evidence. Its findings were inconclusive—there just isn’t enough evidence that big cats are living in Victoria, although it couldn’t rule it out either—and it recommended further investigation.

An earlier study in the 1970s by Deakin University also attempted to determine whether big cats lived in the Grampians, a national park that includes a mountain range. Its traditional name is Geriwerd. The study came to the conclusion that there probably were pumas in the Grampians, but one of the pieces of proof, a 3-inch, or 8-cm, fecal pellet, was later identified as a pellet regurgitated by a wedge-tailed eagle.

Kristie also mentioned that the wedge-tailed eagle might be the source of some claw marks found on wildlife. The wedge-tailed eagle is a large, robust bird with a wingspan over nine feet across, or 2.84 meters, and it lives throughout Australia and southern New Guinea. It’s mostly black or brown in color and has a large hooked bill and large, strong talons. It often hunts in pairs or even groups and can kill animals as large as kangaroos. Larger species of wallabies and other native animals are the eagle’s natural prey but it also eats lots of introduced animals like rabbits and foxes, and occasionally kills lambs or piglets. It also eats a lot of carrion.

Eagle attacks don’t explain everything, though, such as claw marks found on horse rugs. Horse rugs are special blankets that horses wear, especially in cold weather. There are also reports of dead sheep and goats found dragged into trees or through fences, something a dog couldn’t or wouldn’t do but a leopard or other big cat could.

In 1991 a piece of poop, more properly called scat or feces, was turned into authorities and sent for testing. Initially reports said it looked like it came from a large felid, although what species couldn’t be determined. Fortunately it was saved and was genetically examined a decade or so later, at which point it matched up to a leopard. Assuming it was actually found in the bush and wasn’t a joke by an exotic pet owner, it means there was a leopard running around in central Victoria a few decades ago for sure.

Most sightings of Australian big cats fall into two categories: black cats and tan or gray-brown cats with white bellies. As we learned in last year’s wampus cat episode, the cougar is tan or gray-brown in color, sometimes called yellowish, with a pale belly, but is never black. Melanism is common in some big cats, especially leopards and jaguars, but leopards and jaguars are always spotted. Even melanistic individuals show a faint spotted pattern up close. So if some Australian big cats are black and other Australian big cats are tan or gray-brown without spots, they’re probably not the same species. But now it’s even more complicated! How could there be two species of big cat hiding so close to people without anyone hitting one with a car or shooting one in a pasture or just getting a really good picture of one on a trail cam or just a phone?

A lot of people think that feral domestic cats are responsible for all the sightings. While some feral cats can grow larger than average for a domestic cat, especially in areas where there’s lots to eat, most are actually quite small and thin. Feral cats are definitely responsible for a lot of big cat sightings, but not all. Black domestic cats in particular stand out in fields and on bright days so might be noticed more often than other colors of cat, and it’s easy to see a big black cat in the distance, not very close to anything, and assume it’s larger than it really is. But pictures and videos of these cats are usually pretty easy to identify as domestic. Domestic cats have pointy ears set high on the head, unlike big cats who have rounded ears that are lower on the head.

One video from 2018 is often cited as proof of a big cat in Australia, although in this case it’s in New South Wales. If you check the show notes, you’ll see a still I took from the video showing the animal’s ears. They’re pointy ears so the animal has to be a domestic cat.

There’s always another possibility, of course. Maybe the big cats aren’t cats at all but rare, reclusive carnivorous marsupials. The two main contenders are the marsupial lion and the thylacine.

The marsupial lion, or Thylacoleo carnifex, isn’t actually a lion. It’s a marsupial, and in fact I should say it was a marsupial because it went extinct at least 30,000 years ago as far as we know. It was probably almost as big as a lion, though, with massive jaws and teeth that could bite through bones. It ate large animals like the giant wombat relation Diprotodon and giant kangaroos, so it would have no trouble with a sheep.

But the marsupial lion didn’t actually look like a lion either. It probably resembled a small bear in some ways, although it had a thick tail more like a kangaroo’s than a cat’s. Its method of hunting doesn’t match up with the dead animals found in Victoria either. The marsupial lion had huge claws that it used to disembowel its enemies, I mean its prey, whereas modern big cats mostly use their strong jaws to bite an animal’s neck. Also, of course, the marsupial lion went extinct a really long time ago. While there’s always a slim possibility that it’s still hanging on in remote areas, I wouldn’t place any bets on it. I don’t think it’s the real identity of the mystery big cats. There are just too many discrepancies.

The thylacine, also called the Tasmanian tiger because it lived in Tasmania and had stripes, was about the height of a big dog but much longer. It was yellowish-brown with black stripes on the back half of its body and its tail. It had relatively short legs but a very long body and its tail was thick. It was a carnivorous marsupial, mostly nocturnal.

The thylacine went extinct in mainland Australia around 3,000 years ago while the Tasmanian population was driven to extinction by white settlers in the early 20th century. But like big cat sightings, people still report seeing thylacines. Maybe people are mistaking thylacines for big cats, since a quick glimpse of a big tawny animal with a long tail could resemble a puma if the witness didn’t see its stripes or didn’t notice them in brush or shadows.

The thylacine wasn’t a very strong hunter, though, at least as far as researchers can tell. But there’s a lot we don’t know about the thylacine even though it was still alive less than 100 years ago. As Kristie says:

“Maybe it was a thylacine. Who knows?”

Kristie and Jason think most big cat sightings are explainable as feral cats and other known animals. They also pointed out that what appear to be unusual predation methods might just be caused by more than one kind of animal scavenging an already dead carcass.

But there are lots of sightings that can’t be explained away, and people occasionally find dead animals that look like they’ve been killed and eaten by a big cat instead of a dog or eagle. While there’s a low probability that a breeding population of big cats is living in Victoria, there’s a very good chance that a few individual animals are. They’re most likely escaped or released exotic pets, possibly ones that were kept illegally in the first place.

As Kristie and Jason point out, people often freak out when they’re confronted with something strange, like the possibility that a leopard is sneaking around their house. You can’t really blame them. That’s why it’s so important to find out more about these animals, because turning the unknown into the known helps people know what to do and not be so scared.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 154: Some Australian animals and how to help



This week let’s learn about some lesser-known Australian animals. A heat wave and dry conditions have led to many terrible bush fires in Australia, with many animals and people left hurt, killed, and homeless. Fortunately, there are ways you can help!

Check out the Animal Rescue Craft Guild for patterns and other information about crafting pouches, beds, and other items needed for injured and orphaned animals, and where to send the items you make.

Animals to the Max has a great episode about the fires and a long list of places where you can donate money where it’s needed most.

Some rescued joeys chilling in their donated pouches:

An Eastern banded bandicoot:

A bilby:

A long-nosed potoroo:

The woylie, or brush-tailed bettong:

The numbat:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

As you’ve probably heard, there are terrible fires sweeping through many parts of Australia right now amid a record-breaking heat wave. Both the fires and the heat have killed an estimated half a billion animals in the last few months. This week we’re going to learn about some lesser-known Australian animals and also talk about ways you can help the people in Australia who are helping animals, even if you don’t have any money to spare.

A Facebook group called the Animal Rescue Craft Guild is the resource for anyone who wants to make needed items for injured or orphaned animals. I’ll put a link in the show notes. The group shares what items are needed, patterns to make them, information about what fabrics and what fibers are appropriate for which items, and where to send them.

In the last week I’ve been knitting and crocheting nests for small animals, and this weekend my aunt Janice and I will be sewing pouches for larger animals. Well, Janice will be doing the sewing, I’ll cut out the cloth pieces for her to use. Many of the animals rescued from the fires are young marsupials, called joeys, whose mothers died, so the pouches are for joeys to live in until they’re old enough to be on their own. Being in a pouch makes the joey feel safe because it feels like being in its mother’s pouch. Rescue groups in Australia need all sizes and kinds of pouches, because there are so many different species of marsupial animals in Australia. So let’s learn about a few you may not have heard of.

One Australian marsupial that a lot of people don’t know much about is the bandicoot. There are a number of different species that live in parts of Australia and New Guinea. Some are exclusively herbivorous while some are omnivores. For instance, the Eastern barred bandicoot lives on the island of Tasmania and has recently been reintroduced into its historic range in Victoria in southeastern Australia. It’s still quite rare and threatened by introduced predators like foxes and by diseases. It’s an active animal and a fast runner, and makes a happy grunting noise when it finds food.

The Eastern barred bandicoot is about the size and shape of a rabbit but with shorter ears and a long nose that it uses to probe into the soil to find worms and other small animals that it then digs up. You can tell where one has been because it leaves a series of little holes in the ground called snout pokes. It’s light brown with darker and lighter stripes on its rounded rump, and has a short mouse-like tail. The Western barred bandicoot is a little smaller than the eastern but looks and acts very similar. Both are nocturnal and solitary, and spend the day sleeping in a nest lined with grass and leaves. When it rains, the bandicoot pushes dirt over its nest to help keep it dry. It eats plant material like seeds and roots as well as small animals like insects, worms, and snails. If something startles it, it will give a big jump, and as soon as it comes down it digs a burrow to hide in. Its pouch faces backwards so dirt won’t get into it when it digs.

Scientists are still working out what other animals the bandicoot is closely related to and how the different species are related to each other. It doesn’t help that many bandicoot species are already extinct. We do know that the bandicoot is most closely related to an animal called the bilby.

The bilby looks even more like a rabbit than the bandicoot does, and in fact sometimes it’s called the rabbit-bandicoot or the rabbit-eared bandicoot. Its fur is silky and slate gray on the back with white underneath, and it has a long nose, long ears, little pink paws, and a long tail. It grows to about 22 inches long, or 55 cm, not counting the tail, which is another 11 inches long, or 29 cm. Males are generally considerably larger than females. It even hops sort of like a hare.

There used to be two species of bilby, but the lesser bilby went extinct in the mid-20th century. The greater bilby is vulnerable due to habitat loss and introduced animals likes foxes and cats, but conservation efforts are underway with captive breeding programs and reintroduction of bilbies into areas where they used to live. There’s also a push to educate people about the bilby, and instead of chocolate Easter bunnies, a lot of people in Australia have started giving each other chocolate Easter bilbies.

The bilby is an omnivore and eats seeds, fruit, plant bulbs, insects, worms, and other small animals. Its large ears contain lots of blood vessels close to the surface. As blood travels through the ears, it radiates heat and returns to the heart much cooler than before, which helps cool the whole body.

The bilby sleeps in a burrow during the day, usually alone or with a few other bilbies, and it digs tunnels to connect different burrows throughout its territory. Like the bandicoot, its pouch faces backwards so dirt won’t get in it. Some bilbies may have a dozen burrows and will dig a new one every few weeks, which is helpful to other species of animal too since other animals may move into old bilby burrows.

The potoroo is another animal that people outside of Australia may not know about. It’s related to kangaroos and wallabies, but looks more like a rodent with a long, thin snout that curves downward. It’s brown with small ears and a thin tapering tail, and its hind legs are longer than its front legs so that it hops like a little kangaroo with its front feet tucked to its chest.

All species of potoroo are endangered even though when European settlers first arrived, it was a common animal all over Australia. Gilbert’s potoroo is so critically threatened that it’s estimated that only 70 are still alive today. In fact, it was suspected to be extinct until a small population was discovered in 1994. The long-footed potoroo was only discovered when one was caught in a trap in 1967. The long-nosed potoroo is less endangered than the other two species, but it’s still threatened by habitat loss, fires, and introduced predators like foxes, cats, and dogs.

The long-nosed potoroo grows to about 15 inches long at most, or 38 cm, with a tail about nine inches long, or 24 cm. Like the bandicoot and bilby, it’s nocturnal, solitary, omnivorous, and digs for a lot of its food. When it’s foraging, it sniffs the ground while moving its head side to side, and when it smells something it wants to eat, it digs to find it. It eats seeds, fruit, flowers, some leaves, and insects and other invertebrates, but it especially likes fungi like mushrooms.

Another little-known Australian marsupial is the bettong, also called the rat kangaroo. It’s related to potoroos and therefore to kangaroos, and looks similar. There are five species, all of them about the size of a rabbit. It hops on its hind legs and has a tail about the length of its body, specifically up to 15 inches, or 38 cm. Its fur is grey or brown, sometimes reddish. It’s nocturnal and solitary and sleeps in a nest during the day, much like the bandicoot. But since it has a prehensile tail, it actually carries its nesting material to the nest with its tail. Since it often lives in desert areas, it digs a warren of burrows and tunnels to stay out of the heat. Like the potoroo, it especially likes to eat mushrooms, but it will eat a lot of plant materials as well as invertebrates.

The woylie, or brush-tailed bettong, is one of the rarest species. It sometimes collects seeds of the Australian sandalwood tree to eat later, burying them in shallow holes. Like squirrels burying acorns, sometimes the woylie forgets where it hid the seeds and they germinate to grow into new trees.

Several species of bettong are threatened by habitat loss, fire, and introduced predators, but there are conservation plans in place to protect the bettong and its habitat.

The last animal we’ll learn about today is the numbat, which sounds like a Pokemon but which is a marsupial related to the extinct thylacine. It’s brown, gray, or reddish with white stripes over its back and rump, and a black streak through its eye, which also has a white ring around it. It grows to almost a foot long, or 29 cm long, with a long bushy tail that adds another eight inches to its length, or 21 cm.

The numbat eats termites and only termites. Termites are soft, so although the numbat has lots of little peg teeth—fifty of them, although sometimes less—it doesn’t need them. Its jaw is weak as a result but it has a long tongue with sticky saliva to lick up termites, and the roof of its mouth is ridged to scrape the termites off its tongue. Then it just swallows them.

The numbat needs to eat up to 20,000 termites every single day. Most marsupials are nocturnal, but the numbat is active during the day since it needs to be awake when the termites are active. It has good eyesight too, unlike many marsupials. It hunts termites by both sight and smell, and digs into the shallow tunnels termites dig outside of their nests. A termite’s nest is too tough for the numbat’s small claws to damage, but the tunnels leading away from the nest are easy for it to uncover.

At night the numbat sleeps in a burrow or sometimes in a hollow tree. Its burrow is usually a long tunnel that ends in a cozy round nesting chamber that it lines with grass, leaves, feathers, flowers, and other soft items. Its rump is protected by especially thick skin, and if a predator tries to get into its burrow, it will block the entrance with its rump. It can also climb trees with its sharp claws.

Male numbats have a scent gland on the chest that starts exuding a smelly oil during the summer, which it uses to mark its territory. The smell attracts females and warns other males away. Babies stay in their mother’s pouch for six months or so, until they’re so big the mother can’t walk properly. At that point she dumps them in the nest although she continues to nurse them. A few months after that the babies start to eat termites instead of just milk.

Like the other animals we’ve talked about today, the numbat is threatened by habitat loss and introduced predators, especially foxes and cats. But conservation programs have helped its numbers increase, and it’s been reintroduced into areas where it once lived.

Australia cares about all its animals, little and big, and I know that you care about animals too, or you wouldn’t be listening to this podcast. It’s easy to feel helpless when you hear the news about so many animals dying in fires. But there are ways you can help. Even if you don’t know how to sew, knit, crochet, or do woodworking, you probably know someone who does. Just ask them to teach you how. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to learn, and the patterns posted on the Facebook group I link to in the show notes are all quite simple. For the lining of most pouches, you can use old flannel sheets or even cotton t-shirts, as long as it’s clean, soft, and has no frayed or pilled areas. The outer layer of the pouches can usually be ordinary cloth, and some of the outer pouches can be knitted from regular old acrylic yarn.

If you aren’t able to craft, or you don’t have access to craft materials, you can raise money to donate to wildlife rescue groups in Australia. Check with any groups you may already belong to, like your place of worship, book clubs, gaming groups, your school or college, even your employer. Many groups may be interested in holding a bake sale or yard sale, or just gather donations from members to send to Australia. Last week’s episode of the great podcast Animals to the Max had an interview with an Australian wildlife expert, so I’ve linked to it in the show notes so you can listen if you haven’t already, and because that episode’s show notes have lots of great links where you can send donations.

Whatever you do to help, the people and animals of Australia appreciate it! Even if all you can do is learn about Australian animals so you can share that knowledge with other people, everything helps.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!