A secret life
The southern marsupial mole or Itjari-itjari lives a secret, solitary life below the spiky spinifex and burning sands of Central Australia. Even its tracks are seen only rarely, usually after rain. So little is known about the species, that it is not even known how males find females for reproduction. People who have been lucky enough to see this mammal that may be up to 10cm long and between 40 and 70g are amazed at how quickly it can burrow away from view, and once underground it powers through the sandy soil, leaving little trace of its presence. The animal's physiology displays a number of special adaptations to underground living. The eyes are vestigial and there is apparently no trace of an optic nerve, there are no external ears, the nose is a horny shield and the pouch opens to the rear. The hands have become scoops equipped with spade-like claws that force the sand beneath the mole's body as it moves forward, backfilling as it goes with its hind feet.
Europeans first collected the mole from a pastoral station on the Northern Territory's Finke River in 1888. It lives in the central sandy desert regions of Western Australia, northern South Australia (apart from records from the Fowlers Bay area near the SA coast) and the Northern Territory. The mole is listed as endangered under the Commonwealth's Endangered Species Protection Act 1992. Some researchers think that comparisons of past and present records are biased by the large numbers of specimens collected during early scientific expeditions. Overall, the number of specimens added to museum collections has not varied much this century.
Between 1900 and 1920, it is estimated that several thousand marsupial mole pelts were traded by Aboriginal people to Europeans and Afghan cameleers. The mole was prized for its luxuriant cream-yellow fur. So little is known about the marsupial mole's current conservation status that it is highly speculative to describe current threats for the species. Predation by feral cats, foxes and dingos of moles when they are above ground, and soil compaction by stock movements or by vehicles, may be potential threats to the long-term survival of the species. Other threats that may change the abundance of ants, insect larvae and termites, such as altered fire regimes and grazing, may also be included.
The most pressing needs are to find out more about the mole's past and present distribution, and to find a living population that can be studied. This will provide the facts needed to prepare a recovery plan for the species.
Scientists are now working with Anangu people in Anangu-Pitjantjatjara lands in South Australia and the Northern Territory to gather information about the southern marsupial mole in that region. Anangu people are teaching western scientists their tracking skills and giving them an insight into their traditional ecological knowledge to find populations of the mole and to study their movements.
If you fortunate enough to be in a position to make observations in relation to the marsupial mole be sure to report all these observations to a Threatened Species Coordinator or the wildlife authority in your state or territory. Sightings of live animals would be particularly important. Be sure to include details such as time, date, location and a description (and photograph if possible) of any surface trails with their associated exit hole and entry mound. Local authorities should be contacted immediately if a live animal or dead animal is found, but the animal should not be collected unless you have a permit.
You can also find out more information about Australia's threatened species by calling the Department of the Environment and Heritage's Community Information Unit on free call 1800 803 772