Photos of Prince George enjoying a curious meeting with a bilby named after him while on a trip to Sydney’s Taronga Zoo on Sunday not only elicited a collective “aww” from the Internet, but also posed the (very serious) question: what on earth is a bilby?
Not quite a rat or possum, the short and plump little critter is a marsupial found in the Australian bush and outback that acquired its name from an Aboriginal word belonging to the Yuwaalaraay people of northern New South Wales, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The long nose and face closely resemble another native Australian animal, the bandicoot, which some people may recognize from the wide-eyed cartoon character of the video game “Crash Bandicoot.”
While both are ground-dwelling animals, bilbies have longer, more sensitive ears, a typically white-tipped tail and silkier fur. They are omnivorous (watch those fingers Prince George!) and feed mainly on insects like spiders, very small animals, seeds and fruit, according to the Australian Environmental Department. They are about the size of a small cat and can grow between 11 to 21 inches in length.
Like kangaroos and wallabies, bilbys also carry their young in a pouch, which faces backwards so dirt doesn’t get in it when they start digging – and they love to dig – deep, spiraling burrows using their strong forelimbs and sharp claws, according to a the World Wildlife Fund fact sheet.
Traditionally a very culturally-valuable animal to indigenous populations who used it as a food source, the bilby, like a host of other animals that have suffered as a result of habitat loss and the introduction of foreign animals, is now listed as “vulnerable” to extinction, according to the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia.
In the lead up to Easter, hollow chocolate bilbies are widely available in lolly shops (candy stores) and Australian supermarkets in lieu of the bunny rabbit, which is seen generally as pests in Australia where they eat farmers’ crops and threaten native wildlife populations.
Prince George, flanked by his royal parents, met his first bilby over the weekend and squealed with delight upon seeing it. Check out the adorable pictures here.