The past two centuries have proven devastating for Australia's mammals, with an extinction rate far higher than anywhere else on Earth. Thirty years of working to ensure the Eastern Barred Bandicoot does not join that number may be about to make a major leap forwards, thanks to a pair of guardian dogs.
Eastern Barred Bandicoots seem like one of the less likely victims of the marsupial Armageddon. Once widespread and abundant, they eat a varied diet of insects, worms, seeds, and roots providing them with adaptability in changing times. They're even fairly resilient in the face of feral cat predation, Dr Amy Coetsee of Zoos Victoria told IFLScience.
Unfortunately, foxes are kryptonite to these little marsupial superheroes, causing their extinction in the wild in mainland Australia. Coetsee blames this on foxes “thrill-killing”, taking the lives of many animals even when they don't need them for food. Only on fox-free islands do the bandicoots cling on. In Tasmania their population has been declining recently for unknown reasons.
Help, however, is on the way in the form of two Maremma guard dogs. A set of 20 bandicoots – some raised in captivity, others from island populations – have been released with their trademark bound near Skipton, Victoria, along with the dogs that will hopefully keep the foxes away. It is hoped the bandicoots' astonishingly short reproductive cycle will see their numbers expand rapidly.
The dogs will wear tracking collars, while radio transmitters have been fitted to the bandicoot's tails, and a human guardian will feed the dogs and check on their health.
The program has a precedent in the Maremmas guarding little penguins during the breeding season at Middle Island so successfully a feature film was based on the story.
However, Coetsee told IFLScience some changes had to be made for these charges. “We couldn't bond the dogs to the bandicoots because they are nocturnal and solitary,” she said. Instead, the dogs were raised from puppydom to bond to a flock of sheep and see themselves as their guardians. The sheep and bandicoots will share territory, something that has proven unproblematic for either in Tasmania. The dogs have been raised to ignore the bandicoots, and by keeping foxes away from the sheep will protect them as well.
Besides foxes, bandicoots have also suffered from habitat loss, but Coetsee said the bandicoots can feed in areas of open grassland as long as they have tall grass or shrubs nearby to house their burrows
Coetsee denies the Maremma were chosen for the publicity value of their cuteness, saying their territoriality and guardianship was more important. Nevertheless, if the release is successful, Zoos Victoria plans to establish self-sustaining bandicoot-sheep-dog cohabitations at several other sites in the bandicoots' traditional range. Having both the guardians and the guarded being utterly adorable surely can't hurt future crowdfunding efforts.