The Woylie, a soil & ecosystem engineer

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Welcome to Fauna Friday, which has changed its habitat from my Ways To Nature Facebook page, to my Ways To Nature web page blog!

Yesterday was World Soils Day, so I want to talk about the amazing Woylie (Brush-tailed Bettong, Rat-Kangaroo) this Fauna Friday. World Soil Day raises awareness of the importance of healthy soils and advocates for the sustainable management of this precious resource. The Woylie (Bettongia penicillata) is a listed threatened species in WA and classified as Nationally Endangered under the Federal EPBC Act 1999 (Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act).
So what’s the relevance of featuring the Woylie this Fauna Friday for World Soil Day…? The Woylie is a small (31-38cm head-body length), nocturnal marsupial that plays a vital role in the health of Australia’s dry sclerophyll forest ecosystems (Biol 101 – Sclerophyll: simply meaning a woody plant with evergreen leaves – as opposed to deciduous).
Woylies are specialist feeders on the fruiting bodies of underground fungi, but will also consume tubers, bulbs, seeds and soil arthropds. They have a keen sense of smell which allows them to accurately detect their next truffle-like meal. Woylies’ strongly clawed forefeet are perfectly adapted to dig for their subterranean diet. Researchers have described the Woylie as an “Ecosystem Engineer”, because they dig up, mix and turn over large volumes of surface soil annually while foraging.
This feeding behaviour is important not only for soil aeration, mixing nutrients and decomposing leaf litter, but their keen little noses and forefeet act as excellent vectors for seed and fungi spore dispersal throughout the forest (-their home ranges can be between 15-100Ha!). Many of Australia’s plants form close symbiotic relationships with soil-born fungi, which allows them to access the limited nutrients in our ancient soils. Extensive dispersal of fungi spores throughout the forest soils curtesy of the Woylie is one of the keys to a healthy and resilient forest.
So in the aftermath of World Soil Day, let’s keep the awareness going with our gratitude for the wonderful Woylie!