Capturing the Wonder of Marsupials

From symbiotic relationships with plants to family lessons on hunting, Australia's marsupials are a diverse and unique group of animals with a complex set of behaviours to boot. However, despite being icons of Australia, many people cannot recognise more than a koala, kangaroo or a possum. Indeed, there's many things about marsupials that Australia's scientists are yet to uncover. 

Filmmakers Dan Hunter and Ed Saltau have been working around the clock over the past few months to put together a three-part series about these amazing creatures, and the important role they have in Australia's ecosystems: ‘For us, that was a really exciting prospect. We’re both really passionate about Australia’s marsupial fauna and we’re very aware of many of the challenges they face.’ Dan and Ed's brief was simple - to make a series about marsupials. This allowed them to take the series in the direction they wanted, explaining that they ‘used the opportunity to share some really novel and exciting science stories about marsupials.’

With a focus on uncovering some of the secrets of Australia's more cryptic and less-known marsupials, Dan and Ed tried to cover as much as possible: ‘We cover the evolutionary history of marsupials, how some marsupials survive and thrive in the desert, specialised movement and reproductive strategies... In the final episode called “Marsupials on the Brink”, we explore some broader ecological concepts, such as trophic cascades and how we might be able to use marsupials to assist with achieving biodiversity conservation goals, by rewilding for instance.’

An important focus for the series was to dispel the myth that marsupials are simply a primitive, subordinate version of placental mammals: ‘We were keen to demonstrate that marsupials are a... highly specialised version exquisitely suited to the challenges they face for life on our vast and varied continent.’ This meant focusing on adaptation such as torpor, which helps marsupials get through tough weather, and diapause as a method for maximising reproduction. It's these special adaptations that make marsupials so unique, and ultimately provide an endless amount of stories to tell through film.

Despite obtaining around 80% of the series' footage from the ABC archives, there was still plenty of filming to be done: ‘As you might expect, all the easy animals to film, like kangaroos and koalas, have been filmed to no end.’ Consequently, Dan and Ed's desire to delve into the lives of some lesser known marsupials took them all over Australia over a six-month period. They explain how their ‘epic quest to share some of the natural history of savannah gliders, northern hairy-nosed wombats and Gilbert’s potoroos for instance, took us from central Queensland, to the top end of the NT and way down in the deep south-west of WA.’ 

As the pair racked up the frequent flyer miles, they were also able to tick off a number of “world firsts” for marsupial film-making. Much of this was thanks to the special conversion of a camera to film in infra-red, so they could observe nocturnal behaviour: ‘We captured the first footage of northern hairy-nosed wombats filmed naturally in the wild. We spent five full nights at a burrow waiting for these guys to emerge. We also filmed Gilbert’s potoroo which has never been done before and captured a previously unknown behaviour of the savannah glider.’ But Dan says we'll have to watch the series to find out exactly what happens.  

Of the sequences they can talk about, a couple in particular stick out for Dan: ‘We have an epic sequence of a hunting stripe-faced dunnart which goes on to teach her babies about the ways of the world. We even found footage of the blind marsupial mole and we have incorporated some very cool research which suggests they may have originally evolved in rainforest habitat.’ 

Dan and Ed were also keen to explore some of the more recent marsupial-related science in their series, such as the complex relationship between fig trees and brush-tailed rock-wallabies: ‘It’s always challenging to communicate often complex processes with limited time and footage and then trying to make this flow visually.’ But, they're both big on using film to communicate science more generally, suggesting it ‘may be the ultimate tool to link science information and a general public in an interesting and accessible way.’

However, there were times when film couldn't quite get across certain concepts, so the pair came up with a different approach: ‘We’ve teamed up with our good friend and animator extraordinaire, Lindsay Horner, to help share some of the more complex concepts in fresh and interesting ways. We're pretty happy with how this has worked out.’

Both Dan’s and Ed’s science backgrounds were incredibly helpful in this process. Indeed, they've noticed a trend in scientists branching out and using their other skills to communicate their work, such as film, photography and art. As someone who traverses both science and film, Dan thinks that ‘science communication will do well to capitalise on the many different talents of scientists out there keen to share science in less conventional ways.’   

Ultimately, they hope that the passion conveyed by some of the people that assisted them with filming rubs off on viewers: ‘We were blown away by the passion of the people working on these lesser-known species. In the case of the Gilbert’s Potoroo, Dr Tony Friend [of] WA Parks and Wildlife is tirelessly dedicating himself to ensuring the tiny remaining population has a fighting chance. It's quite inspiring really.’

The Wonder of Marsupials will be screening on France 5 and ABC later this year. 

All images by Daniel Hunter and Ed Saltau. 

Billy Geary
Billy is the Science & Conservation Editor at Wild Melbourne. He is a wildlife ecologist interested in predator-prey interactions and invasive species management.

You can find him on Twitter at: @billy_geary