Bettongia – Bettongs

All species are threatened; two species already became extinct since the European settlement in Australia

Bettongs are small to medium-sized marsupials that bear a superficial resemblance to rats or small kangaroos, hence their colloquial name. Despite their slow-moving nature, these creatures can navigate the open forests and woodlands that constitute their natural habitats. Endothermic and exhibiting bilateral symmetry, bettongs possess physiological traits typical of mammals and the distinct marsupial characteristic of carrying and nurturing their young in a pouch.

Bettongs are primarily nocturnal and emerge under the cover of darkness to feed. Their diet is particularly specialized, primarily focusing on fungi, making them one of the few mammalian fungivores. This diet is unique and critical for the ecosystems they inhabit. By consuming fungal spores and then dispersing them through their droppings as they move through their environment, bettongs play an indispensable role in the symbiotic relationships between fungi and plants. Fungi facilitate the absorption of nutrients by plant roots, promoting healthier and more resilient plant communities.

Furthermore, bettongs’ digging behavior while searching for food contributes significantly to the ecological health of their habitats. This activity aids in the decomposition of leaf litter and the aeration of the soil, enhancing its quality and fertility. Bettongs’ dispersion of plant seeds also supports the regeneration of vegetation, underscoring their role as ecological engineers within their ecosystems.

Despite their ecological importance, bettongs face numerous threats that have led to a dramatic decline in their populations. The last few centuries have witnessed significant ecological changes that have adversely impacted all species within the Bettongia genus, including both the four extant and three extinct species. Extensive habitat loss, primarily due to land clearing for agriculture and urban development, has been a major challenge. These activities not only reduce the available habitat for bettongs but also fragment their populations, making it difficult for individuals to find mates and decreasing genetic diversity.