Shy, cute but with an iron stomach: Can you guess this Big Scrub favourite?
By James Hagan
As the sun rises to strike the giant trunks of the rainforest, dawn light begins to cascade over the meadows of herbs and grasses and it is time to retreat once again deep into the protection of the shadows for yet another day.
As they softly pad between walls of buttress roots and mounds of soft damp leaves, their ears stay pricked and nose to the ground. Scatterings of fleshy fruits cover the forest floor and vivid splashes of green unfold in every direction, a divine display of orchestrated chaos. The rainforest is a place so overtly dominated by plant life yet, hidden in the foliage, countless forms of fauna thrive.
The faint sound of a Wompoo Fruit-dove (Megaloprepia magnifica) high above, the soft trills of a Red-eyed Tree Frog (Litoria chloris), the roaring vibration of cicadas (Cyclochila australasiae) through the vines and strapping leaves.
The life of the canopy sends debris ricocheting through the dense cover of foliage, while a most elusive creature patiently perusing the undergrowth finds a supplement to succulent leaves, truffle-like fungus, tender ferns, earthy tree bark and the odd crunchy cicada.
This creature loves to browse on a broad variety of grasses, leaves, herbs, fruit, flowers and berries. But their pallet is so robust, they’re even able to consume the leaves of the Giant Stinging Tree (Dendrocnide moroides) whose trichomes emit a neurotoxin powerful enough to cause days of extreme pain to humans. Reputed as one of the most poisonous plants on the continent, it makes a spicy meal for this Big Scrub favourite. Despite its iron stomach, it’s a species equally vulnerable to predation. Historically Dingoes, Tiger Quolls or Carpet Pythons would have seen them as a delicious main course. Today they are notoriously threatened by feral cats and dogs, but more tellingly by habitat loss.
To spot this fleet of foot mammal, one has to be vigilant. The observant eye may catch a faint glimpse of them darting through the undergrowth to evade a perceived threat. The sharp ear might sense the thudding of a watch keeper alerting individuals close by of a looming threat. Your presence will most likely be known to Thylogale stigmatica, its genus name derived from the Greek words thylakos, meaning “pouch”, and gale, meaning “weasel”. The species name from the latin stigma, meaning “mark” or “brand.” Belonging to the family of Macropods along with Kangaroo and Wallaby, the Red-legged Pademelon lives a mostly solitary life in the remaining fragments of dense rainforest including the Big Scrub.
Groups can sometimes be seen during dim-lit hours munching herbs at the fringe of rainforest patches. Rarely greater than 75 centimetres in height when upright, their soft, thick, grey-brown fur is contrasted by a creamy belly and striped thigh while its ears are a distinctly rusty colour.
The Red-legged Pademelon is essential in the maintenance of the rainforest for its specialist pruning of the ever-emerging undergrowth, dispersing seeds of rainforest fruits and sustaining the rainforest food web. Next time you visit the Big Scrub keep quiet and remain vigilant and you might spot the shy Red-legged Pademelon, if only briefly.