The numbat is a small marsupial that feeds almost exclusively on termites. It is also known as the banded anteater or marsupial anteater. It has stripes on its back which are more prominent towards its rear. They have a black stripe across each eye. Adults weigh about a pound and are a little more than a foot long (roughly the size of a squirrel). It is one of the few marsupials that is fully active during the day. The numbat is not closely related to other living marsupials.
It was found throughout much of the southern part of the Australian continent when Europeans first arrived. Its range eventually shrank to just two small protected areas in Western Australia. It has since been reintroduced into seven additional areas in Western Australia, plus one each in South Australia and New South Wales.
There was once another subspecies called the rusty numbat. It was not significantly different from the common numbat except for its more reddish color. It occurred in the eastern part of the numbat range and has been extinct since the 1960s.
European Discovery of the Numbat
The first known sighting of the numbat by a European occurred in 1831. George Fletcher Moore, a member of an expedition led by Robert Dale. sighted one and recorded in his journal:
"Saw a beautiful animal; but, as it escaped into the hollow of a tree, could not ascertain whether it was a species of squirrel, weasel, or wild cat."
The next day they encountered another numbat which also ran into a hollow tree. They were able to capture this one and examine it more closely. Moore wrote:
"From the length of its tongue, and other circumstances, we conjecture that it is an ant-eater."
The first scientific description of the numbat was by George Robert Waterhouse in 1836. In John Gould's 1845 publication, The Mammals of Australia, there is a one page description of the numbat, and an illustration by H. C. Richter. In his description, Gould incorrectly speculated that it also fed on honey.
The Decline of the Numbat Population
The decline of the numbat is primarily due to predation by the European red fox. The fox was introduced into Australia in 1855 for sport hunting. By the 1870s it was already well established. Today there are over six million foxes in Australia, occupying the entire continent except for the tropical north portion. Habitat loss has also been a factor in its decline.
By the 1980s the wild population of numbats was well below a thousand, possibly as few as 300 animals, in just two locations. The Perth Zoo established a program in 1987 aimed at breeding numbats for release into the wild. Their first success was in 1992 and their first release into the wild occurred the following year. Since then, the zoo has bred and released well over one hundred numbats.
Numbats have been re-introduced into several new areas to enhance the species chance for survival. To help protect these populations, poisoned baits are used to reduce the number of foxes and feral cats. The outlook for the numbat is improving, but it is still considered an endangered species.