Highlights of Australia: The yellow-footed rock-wallaby
Today a threatened species, the yellow-footed rock-wallaby is one of Australia‘s most charming and attractive marsupials.
Yellow footed rock wallabies are the largest marsupial of the rock-wallaby family of wallabies. Sitting up, they reach a height of about 60 centimetres, and weigh between 6 and 12 centimetres. They are distinguished by their white cheek-stripes; orange ears, forearms, and hind legs; a striped tail; soft, white fur on the belly; and of course, their yellow feet.
Yellow footed rock wallabies are found in a number of small regions of the Australian landmass, including Idalia National Park, north of Charleville in Queensland; Mutawintji National Park, near Broken Hill; the Flinders Ranges and Gammon Ranges, in eastern South Australia, and the mallee landscape of the Gawler Ranges on the Eyre Peninsula, South Australia.
They are naturally drawn to a rocky habitat, semi arid areas of red dirt and mulga . Rocky outcrops provide shelter from extreme temperatures, and protection from predators. They feed on vegetation between rocks and at the bottom of rock piles. They can be somewhat fussy, preferring grasses and herbs when they’re available after rains, but will eat fallen leaves in times of drought. During summer, living in climates that can top 50 degrees Celsius, rock wallabies tend to be nocturnal, while they are active day and night during the winter. On cool mornings, they often sit up and bask in the sunlight.
Because their habitat tends to be fragmented, yellow footed rock wallabies form isolated colonies of up to and over 100 individuals. These groups are made up of smaller colonies, consisting of a dominant male, several subordinate males, a number of females, and an assortment of juveniles. Each smaller colony uses an area of around 1000 hectares.
Yellow footed rock wallabies generally get along well with one another, though they do not form close bonds or groom one another. Dominance between males is usually sorted without physical violence, through aggressive behaviours such as sniffing, hissing, stamping, pawing and chasing. Only the dominant male is able to mate. As females can breed continuously when conditions are favourable, there will usually be several young wallabies of various ages within the colony. The marsupial female may even have a small joey in the pouch and another that is almost independent.
The Adnyamathanha people of the Flinders Ranges called the wallaby andu. They hunted andu extensively, placing traps (pits disguised with broombrush) along their usual paths. However, the distribution of meat was under the control of initiated men, and exploitation was well regulated.
The first European to see a yellow-foot was most likely the explorer Edward John Eyre. During his exploration of the Flinders Ranges in 1840, he recorded seeing them in large numbers at Mt Aroona, noting in his journal that ‘they leapt and clambered up among the steep sides of the cliffs in a manner quite incredible.’
In the 1880s, yellow footed rock wallabies were said to occur in ‘droves of 60 or 70’. Tragically, hunting and introduced predators reduced their numbers considerably. Around the turn of the 20th century, tens of thousands of yellow-foots were hunted for ‘sport’ and profit. The beauty of their fur made shooting them profitable.
By 1912, the decline was obvious. The South Australian Parliament passed the Animals Protection Act, forbidding the hunting of yellow-foots for their skins. Yet, even after the hunting stopped, wallaby numbers did not recover as the wallaby competed with habitat destruction and introduced herbivores. Reduced populations now had to deal with feral catand fox predation and compete with introduced grazers, sheep, rabbits, and feral goats – with whom they share an overlapping diet and enter intense competition in drought.
In the 1970s, conservation efforts were stepped up. In 1975, the South Australia National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) began formulating a management plan for the populations in that state and the wallaby had conservation status. Academics studied the breeding and population patterns of the wallabies, and plans were made to reintroduce a wallabypopulation with a genetic diversity of captive-bred animals back into the wild.
In 2000, yellow footed rock wallabies were considered a threatened species. Queensland had a total yellow-footed rock wallaby population of around 5000, while population numbers were much lower in New South Wales.
In the Flinders Ranges, the yellow-footed rock-wallaby was on the verge of extinction, with a population of only around 40 by 1992. Thanks to the elimination of predators and competitors – foxes and goats – they have since bounced back, with more than 1000 living around Brachina Gorge. Similarly, the Gawler Ranges National Park has seen a population of around 6 bounce back into the hundreds, thanks to skilful conservation management.
Despite this encouraging population growth, the yellow-footed rock-wallaby remains a vulnerable species in South Australia, and an endangered species in New South Wales and Queensland.