Reconstruction of the newly described pig-footed bandicoot

The new species of pig-footed bandicoot came in two different colour morphs © Peter Schouten

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New species of extinct pig-footed bandicoot described from Australia

The pig-footed bandicoot was the only marsupial to have evolved hoof-like feet. Other than this unique adaptation, however, little else is known about these enigmatic creatures.

Now, researchers have reviewed all the Museum's known modern and fossil specimens for these animals, and have revealed that there were in fact two separate species of pig-footed bandicoot roaming the outback. 

The pig-footed bandicoot belonged to a distinct group of small omnivorous marsupials that includes other bandicoot species, as well as the last surviving species of bilby.  

Aboriginal people knew about these animals for around 65,000 years before the marsupials were first recorded by Europeans in 1838. Unfortunately it took just over 150 from its 'discovery' by Europeans for it to go extinct. The last bandicoots are thought to have vanished by the 1950s.

The rapid extinction of the pig-footed bandicoot means that it was never properly studied in its environment, so little is known about these extraordinary animals or their ecology and behaviour.   

To better understand these bizarre creatures, researchers reassessed all 29 modern pig-footed bandicoot remains that survive (including bones, taxidermy animals and wet specimens), as well as fossil and subfossil bones held in museums and universities around the world.

The team were able to determine what the bandicoot's likely range would had been before being driven to extinction. It appears that the animals most probably roamed across much of the arid grasslands of central and southern Australia.

The researchers were also able to obtain DNA from some of these hundred-year-old specimens.

Stuffed northern pig-footed bandicoot on a black background

Specimens of the northern pig-footed bandicoot were found in collections, such as this one at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturel (Paris) © Dr Kenny J. Travouillon / WA Museum

Roberto Portela Miguez, Senior Curator in Charge of Mammals at the Museum, and co-author of the paper describing the new species published in Zootaxa, says, 'Recent technological advances in CT scanning and ancient DNA helped us explore museum specimens in ways that nobody had ever done before.

'I am in awe with the collaborators in the study that dealt with the DNA extraction and the fact that they were able to do so from a minimal sliver of tissue with a few hairs from 150-year-old specimens. When I started in my role at the Museum, something like this would be rare, costly and almost unheard of.'

The genetic analysis was able to give a better idea of how the pig-footed bandicoot populations were spread across Australia.

A map showing the distribution of the two species and subspecies of the pig-footed bandicoot across Australia

The likely distribution of the two pig-footed bandicoot species in modern times. Which species or subspecies occurred in southern South Australia is not yet known. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

A marsupial with cloven hooves

The study revealed not only that the original species Chaeropus ecaudatus should be divided into two southern subspecies that lived in the southwest and southeast, but also that the pig-footed bandicoots living in the middle of Australia were their own distinct species.

This central Australian species is now known as Chaeropus yirratji, after the local Aboriginal name for the animals. The testimonies from Aboriginal peoples were crucial to reconstruct and understand the former distribution for the species, as well as the time of its extinction.

There were also noticeable physical differences between the two species. C. yirratji was found to have had a longer tail and hind feet, as well as a distinct coat colouration. It also seems that the northern bandicoots had at least two different colour forms, one lighter and one darker.  

The pig-footed bandicoot was by all accounts incredible. At only a few hundred grammes in weight it is thought to have been one of the smallest grazing mammals ever to have existed.

What's more, as the name suggests, the pig-footed bandicoot had curious feet.

The animals are the only known marsupial to have evolved hoof-like feet, much like those of other mammals such as pigs and deer. What is so remarkable about this is that pig-footed bandicoots and deer are separated by millions of years of evolution. 

Grasslands of central Australia with a blue sky

The northern pig-footed bandicoot would have lived in places such as the Gibson Desert © Gypsytwitcher / Shutterstock

Rapid extinction

Despite its unusual appearance and the fact that they are the only mammal known to have walked on two toes at the front and one toe at the back, only a handful of animals were ever collected. 

Very little is actually known about how the animal lived or where it fit in the ecosystem.

Unlike the surviving insectivorous bandicoots, it is thought that the pig-footed variety was almost exclusively herbivorous and built small nests out of grass.

Reports from early Europeans who saw them alive and these are often conflicting, with some suggesting that the animals were purely nocturnal, while others recount seeing them during the daytime. This confusion could be partly explained by the two separate species exhibiting different behaviours.  

It is likely that while the southern species lived in an environment dominated by shrub-land, the northern species was more at home in open grasslands.

Apart from this, not much else is known about the animals or their behaviour. 

A mounted southern pig-footed bandicoot on a black background

The southern pig-footed bandicoot, such as this specimen from Australian Museum (Sydney), is now know to be divided into two subspecies © Dr Kenny J. Travouillon / WA Museum

The pig-footed bandicoot is thought to have gone extinct at some point in the 1950s, due to the fateful combination of European arrival and land-use change that likely altered the marsupial's habitat.

'This research increases our understanding of past biodiversity and enhances our knowledge of the diversity of mammals,' explains Roberto. 'It also helps build a more comprehensive picture of the true impact we had and are still having on the natural world.

'Every species matters because each species plays a part in the ecosystems they naturally occur and the extinction of one species could lead to the collapse of these complex systems.'

Australia has been particularly hard hit by mammalian extinctions. Since the arrival of Europeans, it is thought that at least 30 species of native mammals no longer exist. To put this into context, roughly a third of all mammals that have gone extinct over the past 400 years were Australian.

Roberto adds, 'If we don't know how many species are out there, we will be ignorant of their loss and we will have a poorer understanding of the natural world. Despite of how long we have been studying natural history collections, it is clear how relevant they still are and much they can help us to fill the gaps in our knowledge.'