Each year, the internet freaks out about a different animal. In 2011, the honey badger captured the imagination of millions of people looking at screens. In 2012, everybody went wild for Grumpy Cat (RIP). The internet has lost it over blobfish, sneezing pandas, hand-holding otters, a Shiba Inu called Doge and more, but in 2013, everybody loved the quokka.
The great thing about quokkas (Setonix brachyurus) — aside from their being small, herbivorous wallabies with permanent smiles on their pointy little faces — is that they really don't mind taking selfies with people. Which, as you know, is a popular internet pastime.
The Rat's Nest
Rottnest Island, a tourist destination off the coast of Perth, Australia, is crawling with quokkas. These little marsupials are about the size of a domestic cat, but resemble darling little kangaroos — or giant rats, depending on what you're used to looking at. In fact, 17th century Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh named the island after the quokkas — Rottnest translates to "rats nest" in Dutch. Rottnest is ground zero for quokkas — they are actually pretty rare creatures on mainland Australia (and don't live on any other continent in the world), and the habits of the Rottnest quokkas are different from those on other parts of Australia. For instance, much of the island population doesn't mind mingling with people, which is why they end up being photographed virtually cheek-to-cheek with so many tourists. You'd be lucky to catch sight of one anywhere else in Australia.
"There are anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 quokkas on Rottnest," says Matthew Hayward, a professor in the School of Environmental and Life Sciences at the University of Newcastle, in an email interview. "They also occur on the mainland, where numbers are perilously low — maybe 100 in the northern Jarrah Forest, and 500 in the southern forests, plus another couple of hundred on Bald Island, off the Albany coast."
According to Hayward, the main cause of their decline is the European red fox (Vulpes vulpes), introduced to Australia in 1847. As the fox made its way into southwestern Australia in the 1930s, it wreaked havoc on the quokka population — people in the area almost immediately people noticed quokka numbers dwindling. They do well on Rottenest Island due to the fact it's fox-free.
"Quokkas once roamed several kilometres from their swamps and were reported as pests on pine plantations, but since the arrival of foxes, any quokka that leaves its swamp is likely to be eaten," says Hayward. "They are now only able to persist on the mainland because they live in thickly vegetated swamp systems that foxes cannot access."
Quokkas Need Fire
Since quokkas have been persecuted by introduced foxes for well over 150 years, it's hard to speculate as to the place they originally held in their ecosystem. It probably didn't have anything to do with taking selfies, but rather with providing diamond pythons and dingoes with lunch. However, ecologists have an inkling that ancient humans and quokkas had a relationship around fire.
"Quokkas were important food to the Nyungar people of southwest Western Australia, who lit fires at one end of the swamp and speared them as they exited," says Hayward. "They hunted them so frequently that quokkas evolved to cope with the high-frequency — but low-intensity — fires used by aboriginal people. Now the long periods without fires that lead to the vegetation opening up too much are a threat to quokkas — it enables foxes to access them."
And Quokkas Need Water
Although quokkas are doing vastly better on Rottnest than anywhere else in Australia, it's not an ideal place for them. Water is a limiting factor to their reproduction on the island, so although mainland quokkas might be able to breed up to three times per year, Rottnest quokkas only breed once per year because there's only enough rain during the summer to ensure that the joeys can leave their mothers' pouch in the autumn, when there is plenty of food for them.
"Quokkas need water to help them digest their food," says Hayward. "On Rottnest, the quokkas really struggle over summer when many starve to death because there is insufficient fresh water for them to drink."
And though it seems like people should probably be leaving the poor, persecuted quokka alone, some conservationists are encouraging people to go to Rottnest and selfie it up with these little cuties. Social media is a great place for raising awareness — about your new haircut or the smallest, smiley-est wallaby that needs our attention.