Bilbies are more Australian than ever with a new 15 million-year-old fossil revealing they’ve been hopping around the country a lot longer than previously thought.

Palaeontologists from the University of Queensland and the University of New South Wales have published a study on the discovery of a fossil that reveals bilbies evolved millions of years earlier than was previously known.

Lead researcher Dr Kenny Travouillon says the discovery will have a big impact on the current understanding of the evolution of Australian marsupials.

“The species that we have discovered is about 15 million years old, which is more in accordance with the DNA data and will provide insight on how bilbies have evolved over time and adapted to changes in the Australian environment,” he says. “More generally, by understanding how Australia’s vertebrates and ecosystems have evolved through time with the changing climate, we can better predict their responses to future climate change and better protect the more endangered lineages against extinction.”

Despite being one of the fastest-breeding mammals in the world, the bilby has been driven close to extinction by feral cats, foxes, wild dogs and competing with rabbits for food and burrows.

Frank Manthey, co-founder of Save the Bilby Fund, is urging people to make this year an Australian bilby Easter to help save the unique species.

“Australians will spend $157 million on chocolate this Easter. Many of these chocolates will be rabbits, which cause billions of dollars of damage to the Australian environment every year,” he says. “You can be part of the growing number of Australians who celebrate bilbies at Easter, not bunnies.

“Look for Pink Lady Chocolate Bilbies with Save the Bilby Fund’s logo. The Fund receives 30 cents from the larger bilbies and 30 cents from a pack of ten.”

New fossils of the bilby’s close relative the bandicoot were also found at the same site. This earlier species variation was named ‘Crash Bandicoot’ after the video game character, since the species crashed into a time period where it was least expected.

“Just like the bilbies, the previously oldest known ancestor of the modern bandicoot was also about five million years old, and hence this finding also pushes back their age,” says Dr Travouillon.