Bilby experts hope boost in the SA gene pool will help speedy marsupials breed faster

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A group of bilbies has been released into an outback South Australian nature reserve to boost the park’s gene pool.

Nine bilbies — four males and five females — were released into disused burrows throughout Arid Recovery, near Roxby Downs.

“It’s been a decade since we had new bilbies brought in here, and the original ones were brought in in the year 2000, so it’s good to get some fresh animals,” Arid Recovery general manager Katherine Tuft said.

The bilbies were caught on Thistle Island, known for having an overpopulation of bilbies.

A large white sign with red letters saying 'Arid Recovery' sits in front of a long and high wire fence.A large white sign with red letters saying 'Arid Recovery' sits in front of a long and high wire fence.
Arid Recovery is located about 570 kilometres from Adelaide.(ABC North and West: Gary-Jon Lysaght)

“We were hoping to get a little bit more but there were some southerly blusters going on the island, so they weren’t able to catch quite as many as we hoped,” Dr Tuft said.

A lady with a brown ponytail is wearing blue jeans and a grey shirt while sitting on a log on a grassy plain.A lady with a brown ponytail is wearing blue jeans and a grey shirt while sitting on a log on a grassy plain.
Katherine Tuft is hopeful the population of bilbies at the reserve will increase.(ABC North and West: Gary-Jon Lysaght)

Dr Tuft said there was no risk of inbreeding in the bilby population at Arid Recovery.

“The more genes in the gene pool, the better equipped the bilbies will be to face any challenge that life throws at them in future,” she said.

Fishing for bilbies

Bilbies are fast runners and even modern scientists still use rudimentary ways of catching the animals.

A woman wearing a green shirt and jumper as well a brown wide-brimmed hat smiles at the camera.A woman wearing a green shirt and jumper as well a brown wide-brimmed hat smiles at the camera.
Research Scientist Catherine Moseby said fishing nets were used to catch the bilbies.(ABC North and West: Gary-Jon Lysaght)

“We just use normal fishing nets for most of our work; when you’ve got a lot of bilbies around, it is a very productive way of catching a lot of bilbies in a short period of time,” Arid Recovery’s research scientist Catherine Moseby said.

“It’s just rained, there’s lots of food around, but the population is quite low, so there’s hopefully lots of vacant home ranges for them to move into.”

A long wire fence extends into the distance in brown dirt.A long wire fence extends into the distance in brown dirt.
Arid Recovery is a not-for-profit focused on the conservation of Australian species.(ABC North and West: Gary-Jon Lysaght)

Adapting to a new home

University of New South Wales PhD student Brianna Coulter said the bilbies would be monitored using radio transmitters over the next few months to ensure they were adapting to their new environment.

“I’ll be radio tracking them to their burrows and where they move over the next few weeks, and I’ll be trapping them up a couple of times and seeing how they’re going,” she said.

“Bilbies are already from the arid zone, so they’re naturally adapted to the arid zone.