An adult bilby, Macrotis lagotis
Source: Museum Victoria
Question: I’ve noticed that there are a lot of chocolate bilbies for sale at Easter. What exactly is a bilby? Is it a type of rabbit? If not, what do bilbies have to do with Easter?
Answer: The bilby is a native Australian marsupial. Marsupials are animals with pouches, such as kangaroos and koalas, which give birth to underdeveloped young. However, bilbies are often referred to as “native rabbits” because they have large “rabbit-like” ears, move by “bunny hopping” and live in burrows.
The European Rabbit was introduced into the wild in Australia in 1858. It spread across the continent at an alarming rate: a single female can have up to 25 babies a year (over several litters) and the young can begin breeding themselves at 3-4 months old. Bilbies have quite a high reproductive rate compared to other marsupials, but they can’t compete with rabbits: in ideal conditions they can produce up to 4 litters a year, but only have 1-3 babies at a time.
Rabbits are now one of the most abundant and widespread mammals in Australia and are considered to be our most destructive environmental and agricultural pest. They compete with native animals and livestock for both food and shelter, inflict significant damage to vegetation and cause serious soil erosion
Historically bilbies were common across all of Australia’s arid and semi-arid regions. There were two species: the Greater Bilby (Macrotis lagotis) and the Lesser Bilby (Macrotis leucura). In the early 1900s bilbies suffered a massive decline as a result of intense competition and predation by introduced species – rabbits, livestock, cats and foxes had all begun to spread into desert areas. Sadly, the Lesser Bilby is now extinct (the last confirmed sighting of a live individual was in 1931) and the Greater Bilby is now restricted to a few small populations in central Australia.
The concept of the Easter Bilby first appeared in the early 1990s. Several Australian chocolate manufacturers began to make chocolate bilbies to increase awareness of this unique animal’s plight and most donate a portion of their profits to organisations working to save the bilby. Australians have embraced the concept and sales of chocolate bilbies have been increasing every year.