Quokka (Setonix brachyurus)
|Also known as:||short-tailed pademelon, short-tailed wallaby|
|Size||Length: 90 cm (2)|
|Weight||2 - 4 kg (2)|
Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The quokka is a small marsupial similar in appearance to a wallaby or kangaroo, with distinctive short brown coarse hair and lighter underparts. This species’ body is stocky and hunched in posture and, as its other common name suggests, it has a noticeably short tail. It has a small head with a dark stripe on the forehead, short and rounded ears, and a naked nose (2). The quokka has strongly developed hind legs enabling it to hop, as well as climb trees up to 1.5 metres, an unusual behaviour for marsupials. It is also unusual in its ability to survive in an environment almost totally devoid of freshwater due to some fascinating feeding and digestive adaptations (3). The Quokka was given its peculiar name by the Aboriginal people living in Western Australia where this species can still be found today. The largest populations however are on Rottnest island, which gained its name when the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh described the island as overrun with ‘rats the size of cats’ (Rottnest is derived from the Dutch for ‘rats nest’) referring to the Quokkas which thrived there (4).
Quokkas are found in abundance on Rottnest Island off Perth, western Australia where the current population on the island is estimated to be 10,000 (2). It was thought to be extinct on the Australian mainland, though small colonies are now starting to stabilise and expand in the south west of western Australia (2).
The Quokka occurs in a variety of habitats, and though it seems to prefer dense vegetation and moist conditions, it survives in large numbers in the seasonally arid and harsh environment of Rottnest Island (2). On the mainland quokkas seem restricted to areas of dense vegetation around swamps, seeking shade during the hot days (2).
On Rottnest Island this animal lives in small family groups, dominated by adult males who form a dominance hierarchy amongst themselves. This hierarchy is usually stable, though on hot summer days males have been known to fight amongst themselves for the best shelters (3). Quokkas sleep during the day in small groups amongst dense vegetation, becoming very active at night, when they gather around water holes with up to 150 other individuals. They feed on native grasses, leaves, seeds and roots, swallowing their food straight away, and later regurgitating the cud to chew it. They often dig their own water holes and can obtain water from succulent plants like cacti, though this species is in fact able to go for months without a drink, due to their remarkable ability to reuse some of their waste products (2). Extended periods without rain however lead to hot, dry conditions and dehydration, and it is the individuals furthest away from a water source that suffer the highest mortality (3). In addition, hot temperatures drain the plants of their water and nitrogen stores, creating problems of nitrogen deficiency in the wallabies (4). The quokka may suffer from dehydration but research has shown these wallabies have excellent thermoregulatory abilities, being able to cope with temperatures up to 44°C (4).
This wallaby produces one offspring per year, and while quokkas breed all year round in captivity, in the wild they only mate between January and March (3). After a short pregnancy of 4 weeks, a female will give birth to a single young known as a joey, which she suckles in her pouch for up to 30 weeks (2). By this stage the joey will have out-grown the pouch and has to leave, but will still suckle for a further 8 – 10 weeks, reaching maturity at around one year old and living for up to 5 years (3).
The quokka, once found in great numbers in south western Australia, suffered serious losses following the introduction of the dingo (Canis lupus dingo) around 3,500 years ago and the European Red Fox in 1870 (1). Neither of these species reached Rottnest Island, where quokka populations remained healthy. However, there is real now concern for the population on Rottnest Island because the island is being developed for recreational purposes (3), resulting in habitat loss, and an increased spread of diseases from humans. Visitors to the island also feed the animals; quokkas have even adjusted to a more diurnal habit to take advantage of food offered by tourists, which is often detrimental to their health. The quokka is at risk of losing its once safe-haven and has recently been classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List and in need of conservation (1).
The quokka population is showing signs of recovery on the Australian mainland thanks to the conservation effort 'Foxglove', by the Australian Conservation of Land Management (CALM) organization, and Perth Zoo breeding Quokkas in captivity (2). Rottnest Island is encouraging visitors not to feed the animals and is developing conservation measures to protect this species, as development on the island appears unavoidable (2). Islands such as Rottnest Island are being recognised as extremely important for the protection of vulnerable species, and the World Conservation Union is calling for improved wildlife conservation in order to provide safe havens for threatened species (1).
For more information on the conservation of Australian marsupials and monotremes see:
- Kennedy, M. (1992) Australian Marsupials and Monotremes. An Action Plan for their Conservation. IUCN, Gland. Available at:
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- Diurnal: active during the day.
- Dominance hierarchy: the existence of divisions within society, based on the outcome of interactions which show some individuals to be consistently dominant to others.
- Marsupial: a diverse group of mammals characterised by their reproduction. The embryo is born 11-35 days after conception. The tiny newborn crawls into the marsupium (pouch) and attaches to a teat where it stays for a variable amount of time. They also differ from placental mammals in their dentition.
- Thermoregulatory: the regulation and maintenance of a constant body temperature in mammals.
IUCN Red List (December, 2009)