8 Facts About the Australian Bilby

gray, pink, and tan bilby stands alert with ears perked up

Martin Harvey / Getty Images

Bilbies are important animals in Australia. With ears like rabbits, legs like kangaroos, and a snout like bandicoots, they appear to be a combination of other animals. However, there is much that makes this small marsupial unique. How many creatures can say their likeness has seen the summit of Mt. Everest like the bilby? Plus, its IUCN vulnerable status has inspired a creative and festive awareness initiative. Here are eight bilby facts that will fascinate you.

1. Bilbies Go by Many Names

The word "bilby" comes from an Aboriginal word used by the Yuwaalaraay meaning "long-nosed rat." But that is just one name for this species. In fact, that's technically not its real name. Officially, this little animal (Macrotis lagotis) is the greater bilby. This is because it had a close relative called the lesser bilby (Macrotis leucura). The lesser bilby is believed to have gone extinct in the 1950s, which is why the greater bilby has assumed the general "bilby" name.

Aside from this, bilbies are also known as "rabbit bandicoots" and "dalgytes."

2. Bilbies Live in the Desert, but Only by Force

Bilbies reside in the desert, but that's more by force than by choice. They are highly adaptive and used to inhabit more than 70 percent of Australia. However, human activity, including development, introduced predators, and introduced competitors for food and shelter, have reduced its range dramatically. Now, bilbies are limited to just 15 percent of the land. They are found only in a few remote parts of Western Australia, western Queensland, and the Northern Territory.

The Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which works to protect bilbies, has made numerous efforts to reintroduce the creature to national parks across the country, including to New South Wales, where bilbies had not been seen for over 100 years.

3. They Are Master Burrowers

bilby at night waiting at entrance to burrow dug into reddish tan ground
John Carnemolla / Getty Images

Bilbies are burrowing animals, using underground tunnels for protection from both heat and predators. Within its home range, a bilby will dig up to a dozen burrows, each with its own single entrance, and move between each of them. Having so many options available means there is always a burrow nearby to dive into should danger approach. It is advantageous for other creatures as well, as many will snag a vacant burrow and use it for themselves.

These tunnels can be up to 10 feet long and seven feet deep. Bilbies are also one of the few animals to dig spiraling burrows, making it more difficult for predators to enter and attack.

4. Female Bilbies' Pouches Are Backward

Bilbies are marsupials. Therefore, they follow the same reproductive process as better-known animals like kangaroos and koalas, including the pouch. They start with a gestation period of about 14 days, one of the shortest among mammals. Joeys are underdeveloped when first born; they immediately climb into their mother's pouch to nurse for about 80 days to finish their development.

Interestingly, female bilby pouches face backward as compared to most other marsupials. The opening is toward the hind legs — rather than toward the head — to prevent dirt and other materials from entering the pouch during hunting and burrowing.

5. They Have Bad Eyesight

bilby standing near red rock and foliage at night illuminated by camera flash
TED MEAD / Getty Images

Bilbies have particularly poor eyesight. To compensate, they rely on keen senses of hearing and smell to navigate and hunt. They can even locate prey underground by sniffing it out and listening for it.

In addition to having strong senses to make up for it, bilbies are not hindered by their bad vision because they are nocturnal. They typically do not emerge from their burrows until an hour after dusk and return an hour before dawn. Since it is always dark while they are active, poor eyesight doesn't make much of a difference.

6. Bilbies Are an Easter Symbol

chocolate bilby surrounded by pastel easter eggs against bright blue background
MillefloreImages / Getty Images

In Australia, there's an effort to swap in the bilby to replace an iconic figure: the Easter bunny. Feral rabbits run rampant there, devastating the local ecology and contributing majorly to the loss of many species. In response, there is a campaign to take the spotlight away from rabbits for the springtime holiday.

When a nine-year-old girl wrote a story about an "Easter bilby" in 1968 and published it years later, it sparked public interest in the creature. In 1991, the Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia started the "Easter Bilby" project to raise awareness for the native animals by using it as the Easter symbol. Operating under the slogan "Bilbies Not Bunnies," it even partners with chocolate companies to create chocolate Easter bilbies, like the one shown above.

7. A Toy Bilby Has Been to the Top of the World

The bilby may be native to Australia, but it's seen the summit of Mt. Everest. Well, a toy bilby has. Mountaineer Tashi Tenzing — grandson to Tenzing Norgay, who was one of the first two people ever to reach Everest's summit — wrote of his own Everest summits in one of his books, "Tenzing and the Sherpas of Everest." He brought a bilby to the top of the world at the request of his Australian son:

"On the very top of my pack I had attached a small, fluffy toy bilby, which is a highly endangered Australian marsupial. My son had asked me to carry it and it also symbolised my heartfelt wish to conserve the wild places and creatures of this amazing planet."

8. They Have Been Around for Millions of Years

For a long time, the oldest bilby fossil was about five million years old. However, paleontologists found a 15 million-year-old fossil in 2014. The discovery pushed back the bilby's date of evolution by millions of years, confirming that bilbies, as a species, are much older than was first believed.

Their ancestor was most likely a fiercely carnivorous bandicoot, which roamed Australia at least 20 million years ago.

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