The Quokkas of Rottnest and early European encounters with marsupials

18 km offshore from Perth, SWA, lies an island called Rottnest. It has rocky coasts with beautiful sandy bays. It also famously has quokkas and, as I am just starting to get to know this part of the world, I was keen to see some of these local marsupials. I spent a lazy day wandering around the island on Saturday 2nd September 2017.

Rottnest, just offshore Perth. Notice the spectacular submarine canyon further offshore.

The sandy beaches and rocky coastline of Rottnest.

Disembarking from the ferry, I went for a walk in a nearby forest to look for quokkas. It didn't take long before I encountered the far-from-active specimen shown below.

My first encounter with a quokka, a sleepy individual in a small forest

A sweet and docile couple

A friendly face

The first Europeans known to have landed on the Rottnest were 13 Dutch sailors from the Waeckende Boey who touched ground near Bathurst Point on 19 March 1658 while their ship was careened nearby. The ship had sailed from Batavia (later Jakarta) in search of survivors of the missing Vergulde Draeck, which was later found wrecked 80 km north near present-day Ledge Point. Samuel Volkersen, the skipper of the Waeckende Boey described the island in his journal:

"In slightly under 32° S. Lat. there is a large island, at about 3 miles' distance from the mainland of the South-land; this island has high mountains, with a good deal of brushwood and many thornbushes, so that it is hard to go over; here certain animals are found, since we saw many excrements, and besides two seals and a wild cat, resembling a civet-cat, but with browner hair. This island is dangerous to touch at, owing to the rocky reefs which are level with the water and below the surface, almost along the whole length of the shore; between it and the mainland there are also numerous rocks and reefs, and slightly more to southward there is another small island.

This large island to which we have been unwilling to give a name, leaving this matter to the Honourable Lord Governor-General's pleasure, may be seen at 7 or 8 miles' distance out at sea in fine weather. I surmise that brackish or fresh water might be obtainable there, and likewise good firewood, but not without great trouble."

In 1696, Willem de Vlamingh took the small furry marsupials now known as quokkas for giant rats and named the island "rat nest" accordingly.

These were not the first encounters with marsupials in this part of the world. Jack Ashby (2015) highlights the illustration shown below from the title page of the 1593 Speculum Orbis Terrae. It shows a marsupial with two young in her pouch. Perhaps a New Guinea padamelon is the most likely candidate for what this represents, given that New Guinea was already known to the Portuguese by the 16th century. Cornelis de Bruijn later (1711) published an illustration of such a padamelon and Wallace (1869) states that it is "remarkable as being the first animal of its kind ever seen by Europeans."

A marsupial with young illustrated on the title page of the 1593 Speculum Orbis Terrae.

At the end of the afternoon, hurrying back for a return ferry to the mainland, the quokkas looked on nonchalantly as I passed by.

I have enjoyed my first few 21st century encounters with marsupials, now including kangaroos, quokkas and a bandicoot. It's also fun to learn of the early encounters between travelling westerners and these strange and fascinating animals.

Jack Ashby, 5 May 2015. The earliest Strange Creatures: Europe’s first meetings with marsupials.

Heeres, J. E. (1899). The Part Borne by the Dutch in the Discovery of AustraliaLondon: Luzac and Co. p. 77


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