Conservation Status: Vulnerable The Quokka (Setonix brachyurus) is found in Western Australia mainly on Rottnest Island (11 miles west of Fremantle). They also exist in small groups on the mainland. They thrive in a warm climate, living among bushland in tall grass.
The quokka was one of the first Australian mammals seen by Europeans. The Dutch mariner Samuel Volckertzoon wrote of sighting "a wild cat" on Rottnest Island in 1658. In 1696, Willem de Vlamingh mistook them for giant rats and named the island "Rotte nest", which comes from the Dutch word 'rattennest' meaning "rat nest". The word quokka is derived from an aboriginal Nyungar word, which was probably 'gwaga'.
In the wild on Rottnest Island, quokkas appear to live in territories with the areas defended by dominant males. In other areas, territories are not as evident and larger, overlapping groups of 25-150 adults have been known to form around water soaks. Sheltering in dense vegetation during the day, quokkas create their own pathways for feeding or escaping predators.
Quokkas are one of the smallest wallaby species in Australia. They have thick, coarse, grey-brown fur; sort, rounded fluffy ears, a tail 24-31 cm long and shorter hindlegs than other macropod species. These animals breed year round, and have a gestation period of 4 months before a new joey is born. The joey lives in its mother's pouch for the first 25 weeks of its life. After leaving the pouch, the joey continues to suckle at its mother's teats for a further 10 weeks.
Quokkas are herbivores and feed at night on native grasses and the leaves, stems and bark of a variety of plants. They prefer browsing on new, young growth. An amazing fact is that quokkas recycle a small amount of their bodies waste products.
Quokkas have no fear of humans and it is common to be able to approach them closely, particularly on Rottnest Island. It is, however, illegal for members of the public on the island to handle the animals in any way. An infringement notice carrying a large fine can be issued by the Rottnest Island Authority for such behaviour. In addition, prosecution of the offence can result in a fine of up to $2,000.
Quokkas were once abundant on the Australian mainland but with the arrival of the dingo around 3,500 years ago and then foxes in the late 1800s (neither of which reached Rottnest) their number were drastically reduced. Today they are showing signs of recovery on the mainland thanks to the Department of Environment and Conservations's feral-proofing operations.
Did you Know? Quokkas are very unusual for a number of reasons. They are able to survive in an environment virtually devoid of freshwater and they can climb trees. Quokkas have been used in medical research on muscular dystrophy as they suffer from the same disease. (More research needed to find out exactly how this is done).
Perth Zoo has an ongoing and successful quokka breeding programme which is part of a national effort to establish a sustainable captive breeding population for this unique marsupial. Co-ordinated by Perth Zoo and in collaboration with the Rottnest Island Authority, Department of Environment and Conservation and four Australian zoos, 33 quokkas were used to establish the new breeding population This new population will help guard against a decline in quokka numbers in the event of disease introduction or natural disaster.
Being such a recognisable Western Australian animal, a strategy is being put into place to mitigate against a potential situation which could see them disappear. Although not as genetically diverse as some of the mainland quokka populations, which occur from Jarrahdale to Albany, it is critical to ensure preservation of the genetic component within the Rottnest population, which is not represented on the mainland. The quokka is an important part of the character of Rottnest Island itself. Long live the quokka!!
We used to really enjoy the quokkas when we holidayed on Rottnest Island many years ago and they were cheeky enough to come into our kitchen and steal any food left lying around, i.e. potatoes or even breakfast cereal if they could reach it. Quokkas are very special to the people of W.A., as well as visitors to the island. We have always been horrified to learn of people who have deliberately injured these animals and you really do wonder what goes on in the mind of that type of person that makes them be so cruel, particularly to a friendly and defenceless creature.