The chocolate dilemma – bunnies or bilbies

bilby not bunny

One of the roles of my day-to-day life is the protection of vertebrate fauna, and in particular threatened fauna. This may be through mitigating impacts of a development or infrastructure project on a particular species or ecosystem or it by the management of feral or introduced pest species.

I was sitting with friends over Easter and discussing the great work that various groups are doing to promote the recovery of the Bilby through selling chocolate Bilbies instead of chocolate rabbits, but to my surprise some of my friends had never heard of a Bilby. I find this hard to believe but realised that unless people are part of a network that discusses these iconic Australian fauna they might not know what they are.

The Bilby (Macrotis lagotis) is currently listed as Vulnerable under the EPBC Act (1999) and Schedule 3 (Fauna that is rare or likely to become extinct as vulnerable fauna) under the WA Wildlife Conservation Act (1950).

Male Bilbies can grow to 2.5kg, but females are smaller with a maximum weight of around 1.1kg (Johnson 2008). In captivity, adults reach sexual maturity at about six months but continue to grow in size until about 18 months of age. Females continue to breed beyond the age of four years (Southgate et al. 2000). Litters range from one to three and young exit the pouch at 70–75 days and then remain in the burrow and are weaned a couple of weeks later.

Bilby diet consists of insects (termites, ants, beetles, grasshoppers) and lepidopteran and coleopteran larvae that are found in the sub-surface roots and stems of shrubs and forbs, plus seeds, bulbs, fruit and fungi (Johnson 1989). They often leave a characteristic excavation 10-25cm deep with the soil scattered in all directions or a ‘pot-hole’ in the ground (Thompson and Thompson 2008). Diggings are often found adjacent to small Acacia shrubs roots.


This nocturnal, medium sized, omnivorous, burrow dwelling marsupial was once wide-spread in Australian arid and semi-arid areas. Its geographical distribution has now contracted to a few small populations in southern Northern Territory, south-eastern Queensland, sandy deserts of Western Australia and the Pilbara. Southgate and Adams (1993) reported that based on an allozyme assessment, all extant populations represented a single species.

Southgate (1990) suggested that Bilby populations are usually found on low slope topography and light to medium soils with three vegetation types: open tussock grassland on uplands and hills, mulga woodland/shrubland growing on ridges and rises, and hummock grassland in plains and alluvial areas and the distribution appears limited by access to suitable burrowing habitat (Southgate et al. 2007) and areas of high plant and food production.

The status of the Bilby in Western Australia and in particular in the Pilbara is unknown. In the Pilbara it appears that there are a few small scattered populations on Abydos Plain (Thompson and Thompson 2008), at McPhee Creek, south of the Fortescue Marsh (Tiller et al. 2012) and east of Nullagine (Dziminski 2016, Ninox Wildlife Consulting 2011). Most of the burrows and diggings in these areas are located on red sandy soils in a spinifex meadow with shrubs and occasional trees, however, they have also recently been recorded in open burnt habitat (Thompson and Thompson 2008) and areas on hard soils with limited vegetation. They are also present on the Dampier Peninsula (Lindsay 2011, GHD 2013), Great Sandy Desert, Little Sandy Desert and the Gibson Desert (Read 1998, Biota Environmental Sciences 2005). Little is known of the geographic distribution or relative abundance of sandy desert populations in Western Australia, but it is likely to be patchy.

Like many other small mammals in Australia the Bilby is threatened by introduced or feral predators, competition with introduced herbivores, habitat fragmentation/degradation or inappropriate fire regimes (Pavey 2006). Further details can be found in the National Recovery Plan for the Greater Bilby.

To counteract some of these threatening actions, the Bilby is listed as one of the 20 threatened mammal species specifically listed in the Threatened Species Strategy Action Plan. The five-year Action Plan in the Strategy resolves to tackle the devastation inflicted on Australia’s threatened species by feral cats and is the start of a five year Australian Government response.

The key action items areas that are priorities are:

  • tackling feral cats;
  • safe havens for species most at risk;
  • improving habitat; and
  • emergency intervention to avert extinctions.

Targets to measure success are:

  • 2 million feral cats culled by 2020;
  • 20 threatened mammals improving by 2020;
  • 20 threatened birds improving by 2020;
  • Protecting Australia’s plants; and
  • Improving recovery guidance.

At the inaugural WA Threatened Species Forum in October 2015, the Threatened Species Commissioner, Gregory Andrews, challenged everyone to play a part in threatened species recovery. Threatened species management is not just a task for experts in the scientific arena but rather something the entire community can assist with.

My challenge over the next 6 months will be to further educate my friends who are not working in the environmental area about fauna such as Bilbies, Numbats, Northern Quolls, Mallefowl, Mulgara, Chuditch, Phascogales, etc and the role each of them can play in protecting the species. Even little things like eating a chocolate Bilby instead of a chocolate rabbit, buying kids clothes with images of a Numbat instead of a fox are a good start.

Everyone can play a role in threatened species management and I have accepted the Threatened Species Commissioners challenge to promote the recovery and management of threatened species.

What action will you take?



Biota Environmental Sciences. 2005. Fauna Habitats and Fauna Assemblage Survey of the Western Tanami Project Area. unpublished report, Perth.

Dziminski, M. 2016 Golden Eagle proposed tailings storage facility area targeted Mulgara and Greater Bilby survey. Unpublished report for Millennium Minerals, Department of Parks and Wildlife.

GHD. 2013. Cape Leveque Road Upgrade Targeted Greater Bilby Assessment. Perth.

Johnson, K. A. 2008. Bilby. Pages 191-193 in S. van Dyck and R. Strahan, editors. The mammals of Australia. Reed Australia, Sydney.

Johnson, K. A. 1989. Thylacomidae. Pages 625-635 in D. W. Walton and B. J. Richardson, editors. Fauna of Australia. Mammalia. Australian Government Publishing, Canberra.

Lindsay, M. 2011. Evidence of Greater Bilby, Macrotis lagotis; at the site of the proposed James Price Point Browe LNG Precinct. Perth.

Ninox Wildlife Consulting. 2011. A Vertebrate Fauna Survey of the Proposed Satellite Mining Areas, Near Nullagine Western Australia. Perth.

Pavey, C. (2006). National Recovery Plan for the Greater Bilby Macrotis lagotis. Northern Territory Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts.

Read, J. L. 1998. Vertebrate fauna of the Nifty mine site, Great Sandy Desert, with comments on the impacts of mining and rehabilitation. Western Australian Naturalist 22:1-21.

Southgate, R. and M. Adams. 1993. Genetic variation in the greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis). Pacific Conservation Biology 1:46-52.

Southgate, R., P. Christie, and K. Bellchambers. 2000. Breeding biology of captive, reintroduced and wild greater bilbies, Macrotis lagotis (Marsupialia : Peramelidae). Wildlife Research 27:621-628.

Southgate, R. I. 1990. Habitats and diet of the greater bilby Macrotis lagotis Reid (Marsupialia: Peramelidae). Pages 293-302 in J. H. Seebeck, P. R. Brown, R. L. Wallis, and C. M. Kemper, editors. Bandicoots and Bilbies. Surrey Beatty & Sons, Chipping Norton.

Southgate, R., R. Paltridge, P. Masters, and S. Carthew. 2007. Bilby distribution and fire: a test of alternative models of habitat suitability in the Tanami Desert, Australia. Ecography 30:759-776.

Thompson, G. G. and S. A. Thompson. 2008. Greater Bilby (Macrotis lagotis) burrows, diggings and scats in the Pilbara. Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia 91:21-25.

Tiller, C., S. Comer, P. Speldewinde, S. Cowen, and D. Algar. 2012. Fortescue Marsh Feral Cat Baiting Program (Christmas Creek Water Management Scheme) Year 1 Annual Report. Perth.

Photo credit: Top – Bilbies not bunnies from the Bilby Appreciation Society website; middle – Bilby scats and diggings; bottom – Camera trap image of a Bilby

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


2 Responses to “The chocolate dilemma – bunnies or bilbies”

  1. Ry Beaver on March 30th, 2016 2:19 pm

    Hi Scott,

    Interesting article – I also have experienced similar – I went looking for Phascogale in Mandurah on the weekend and a number of people at work hadn’t heard of them – no luck unfortunately. Many had heard of quolls but not Phascogale.

    One thought is while I agree with the use of aboriginal names perhaps this confuses the general public further ie Quenda – Bandicoots, Chuditch – Quolls , etc.

    Education of the general public is really important especially for valuing our natural resources – in the current issue of landscape there is a great article about a teacher talking to students about Quenda in the hills and then kids telling there parents not to kill the rat on their property because its a Quenda!

    On that note I bought my 2yr old son a Bilby for Easter!

    Cheers Ry

  2. Margaret Bloor on April 17th, 2016 6:11 pm

    I have been buying Bilby’s for years now. I buy about 25. give or take. They are my rabbits. Where on earth rabbits came to be part of Easter I will never know. The EGG is to symbolise the Boulder closing the opening to Christ’s Tomb. When the egg is broken, it is the boulder been rolled away and the tomb open. For those who do not know. Now why the rabbit, please.

Got something to say?