Ode to the Gilbert’s Potoroo

Sophie Chao

Endemic to the south coast of Western Australia and now classified as Critically Endangered, the Gilbert’s potoroo (Potorous gilbertiiis) is the rarest mammal species in Australia and the rarest marsupial in the world.


Potoroo, potoroo
Your long, slim brown tail moves fast in the grass
Your slender curved snout trails ground, rock, and bark
You smell, then you spring, they you sense, stop, and start
As you forage for fungi under cover of dark
In a vast moonlit country
Across bushland and creeks
Fur dense on the body and pale on the chest
Sparse on the tail, and full on the cheeks

Potoroo, potoroo
You are birthed in small colonies throughout most of the year
You live all of seven, no more and at best
Beneath sedges and mosses you go to find rest
In shallow depressions lined with roots and leaf litter 
Small and elusive, a timid bush critter
Sharing your nest with three to eight others
The males, the children, and always the mothers
Until darkness falls and movement is borne
As you forage the forest from nightfall till dawn

Potoroo, potoroo 
With your long hindfeet you hop
Your long curved claws you dig
Your elongated snout you sniff
For berries, seed pods, and insects
An index finger’s depth-worth of soil is all you need
To unearth the 44 different fungi upon which you feed

Like other dwellers of the bush
The Woylies, Bettongs, and Quenda
You engineer the ecosystem
Churning earth, spreading spore
In the silence of the night
You rework the soil and sediments
As you burrow, ingest, defecate, and migrate 
Moving seeds, nourishing plants
Shifting dirt, cycling nutrients, 
And so moving the earth, and so earthing the forest

Potoroo, potoroo
Upon you has been bestowed many a name 
To some you are grul-gyte
To others you are ngilkat
To some you are nailoit
To others you are garlgyte

But since 1841 you are Gilbert’s potoroo
Named by the zoologist who collected your kin
Down by King George Sound and Margaret River 
Among other rare birds, bush plants, and mammals
Who, like you, were kept and displayed overseas
In collections and cases
And volumes and books
Housed in the British Museum of Natural History
From the skin and skull of a single young female
Your description and name were conjured and claimed

Potoroo, potoroo,
How much more the Black Summer took from you 
Your land and your life
Your burrows and kin
Your shelter and shade
And so, so much more
That we humans ignore

Your landscapes were ravaged, your forests were shorn,
Along with everything else that in, with, and through you is born
The trees and the truffles
The insects and litter
The berries and seed pods
Leaving behind only ashes and dust
Your beige-brown fur now singed dark red and rust

But potoroo, potoroo
You have seen this before
From Albany to Margaret River you once roamed
Silent and furtive since the lost days of yore
And then you were lost to both science and sight
Considered extinct for some sixty odd years
You faded away in the annals of history
The cause of your waning remaining a mystery
Only to resurface some forty years later
On a morning of May in the year 94
During a survey for quokkas, you were found once more
Your native range now reduced to Two Peoples Bay 
Less than one hundred, they say
Not a single more

Potoroo, potoroo,
You have seen this before
Lost half a century
To all human worlds
But all along, in the bushland
You continued to world
Spreading the seeds and nourishing plants
Shifting the soil and so moving the earth, and so earthing the forest
And so you are known as a ‘Lazarus’ species—
Once thought extinct, and then once more reborn 

Potoroo, potoroo,
From the ashes, too, you have risen before 
2015 was your summer of gore
A bushfire killed all but five of your kin
Leaving behind but a tenth of your forest
Through some 1200 hectares in Two Peoples Bay
The flames licked and leapt turning lands and skies grey
The first major blaze in some fifty odd years
The land there won’t hold you for at least twenty more

Your whole kind would have perished 
Were it not for a few 
Who survived from being moved
To a place far and new
The haven of Bald Island located somewhere offshore

Today, fewer than 40 of you survive in the wild
Haunted by dangers, both ancient and new
Fires will singe you, scar you, and starve you
As climate change grips on place, time, and species
The fires will worsen, the droughts they will lengthen, your futures they threaten
The risk of extinction every year draws yet closer 
For a species whose survival requires shrublands and woodlands
By fires unscathed for a decade thrice over

As the forest gives way to sparse open land 
The trees, shrubs, and plants turn withered and dry
Afflicted by “dieback,” they shrivel and die
Threatening your food source, the underground fungi
Exposed to the predators, on land and up high
From feral cats and foxes to the blotched carpet python
Will you find ways to live on and beyond?

If evolution holds true
Then the odds are against you
New populations have dwindled
Bodies and burrows in the bush are found mangled
Genetic bottlenecks now have you throttled
How long will the landscape hold you, your nests and your kin and your fur and snout mottled?

Potoroo, potoroo,
So little we know of the worlds you have worlded
The soils you have healed and that heal you
The climates that grow, nourish, and kill you
The underground fungi and fodder that feed you
Conservation and breeding, they have barely sustained you
Artificial insemination and cross-fostering, they sought to save you
But your offspring were weak, their last breath expired in a year, maybe two

Potoroo, potoroo,
The Black Summer fires ate half of your land
Against fire and flame and climate we race
With cameras and trackers we search for your trace 
Around you have flourished the campaigns and calls
With bait stations we attract those who survived through the flames
We struggle to sight you, lure you, and feed you
With glistening treats we hope to entice you
Peanut butter, dried oats, golden syrup and truffle oil, to name but a few

Potoroo, potoroo
You have seen this before
Found, near-extinct, and once more reborn
Lazarus you were, but may be no more 
Reduced you may be to the lost stuff of lore

But somewhere still in this vast moonlit country
There holds in the soil your still-living memory
A long, slim brown tail that moves fast in the grass
A slender curved snout that trails ground, rock, and bark
Across rivers and woodlands and bushlands and creeks
Fur dense on the body and pale on the chest
Sparse on the tail, and full on the cheeks


Sophie Chao is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Her research explores the intersections of Indigeneity, ecology, and capitalism in the Pacific. For more information, please visit www.morethanhumanworlds.com.

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