National Multi-species Recovery Plan for the Carpentarian Antechinus Pseudantechinus mimulus, Butlers Dunnart Sminthopsis butleri, and Northern Hopping-mouse Notomys aquilo 2004-2008

Woinarski, J.C.Z.
Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2004

Part A: Species information and general requirements

Introduction

This plan jointly considers three native mammal species from northern Australia. While the three species share some similarities in ecology, status and conservation management requirements, there are also distinct differences among them in these and other features. Recognising both these similarities and differences, this plan follows the standard overall framework for single species Recovery Plans, but provides specific information for each of the three species whenever relevant throughout, and wherever possible pools information from each of the three species accounts to derive commonalities and to highlight management issues and actions that may apply for all three species.

Descriptions

The carpentarian antechinus Pseudantechinus mimulus is a small (ca. 15-20 g.) terrestrial carnivorous marsupial. It is closely related to and superficially similar to a set of dasyurids typically occupying rocky areas in northern and central Australia, including the sandstone antechinus Pseudantechinus bilarni, ningbing antechinus P. ningbing, fat-tailed antechinus P. macdonellensis and Woolleys antechinus P. woolleyae, but is slightly smaller than these others. All have a somewhat flattened head and pointed muzzle, large ears, and are generally brown above and pale below. The carpentarian antechinus has a patch of reddish fur around the ears. Pseudantechinus species can store fat in their tail, and this becomes carrot-shaped when food is plentiful.

Carpentarian Antechinus (photo Kym Brennan)

Carpentarian Antechinus (photo Kym Brennan)

Butlers dunnart Sminthopsis butleri is another small (ca. 10-20 g.) terrestrial carnivorous marsupial, finer of features than for the carpentarian antechinus. It too is similar in general appearance to a range of small dasyurids occurring across Australia, including the Kakadu dunnart S. bindi and red-cheeked dunnart S. virginiae in northern Australia. All are generally grey-brown above and pale below, with large ears and eyes, and sharply pointed muzzle.

The northern hopping-mouse Notomys aquilo is a medium-sized (25-50 g.) terrestrial granivorous rodent. It has features typical of hopping-mice in general, with very long narrow hindfeet, large ears and eyes, and very long partly tufted tail (about 150% of head-body length). It is the only representative of its genus in northern Australia, thus, in this area, its morphology is highly distinctive. It is sandy-brown above and paler below. Hopping-mice move with a distinctive gait, such that the bipedal tracks may provide the most conspicuous signs of its presence.

Taxonomy

The three species each have a somewhat complicated taxonomic history, notable for single puzzling early records followed by a long period before any subsequent specimens.

carpentarian antechinus

The carpentarian antechinus Pseudantechinus mimulus (Thomas, 1906) was originally named (as Phascogale mimulus) from one specimen collected by W. Stalker at Alexandria, NT, in 1905. The distinction of this species was subsequently largely unrecognised, with most authors including it within P. macdonnellensis (e.g. Mahoney and Ride 1988), and with the generic name of these and allied species being variably changed from Antechinus, Parantechinus to Pseudantechinus. The placement of mimulus was hampered by the lack of specimens other than the type (Kitchener and Caputi 1988) until 1967, when three individuals caught on North Island (Sir Edward Pellew group, NT) were included in a re-recognition and redescription of P. mimulus (Kitchener 1991). A complex set of morphological criteria (notably in skull and dentition characters) was used to separate P. mimulus from its congeners, notably P. ningbing, P. bilarni and P. macdonnellensis (Kitchener 1991). Recent genetic analyses have supported this classification, but these are not yet published (M. Westerman, Genetics Department, LaTrobe University pers. comm. ).

Some sources give the vernacular name for this genus as “false antechinus” (e.g. Menkhorst 2001), thus carpentarian false antechinus for P. mimulus. This formation provides somewhat greater taxonomic precision but is unnecessarily cumbersome.

butlers dunnart

Butlers dunnart Sminthopsis butleri Archer, 1979 was described relatively recently (Archer 1979a) (with the vernacular name Carpentarian Dunnart: Archer 1979b), on the basis of one specimen collected on “Cape York” in 1898 and three specimens from Kalumburu WA collected in 1965 and 1966.

A further historical record (previously mis-identified as S. virginiae), collected on Melville Island in 1913, was subsequently assigned to this species (Woinarski et al. 1996). Since the original description, examination of additional specimens from Cape York Peninsula and New Guinea resulted in a taxonomic split of S. butleri, with that taxon now referring to only those populations from the northern NT and Kimberley, and the Queensland and New Guinea population defined as the Carpentarian Dunnart S. archeri (Van Dyck 1986). Given this treatment, the listing of “Carpentarian Dunnart Sminthopsis butleri” as a threatened species under the EPBCA is invalid and confusing. The listing should be of Butlers Dunnart S. butleri.

northern hopping-mouse

The northern hopping-mouse Notomys aquilo Thomas 1921 was described from a single specimen collected around the 1870s from “Cape York”. The species was not reported again until Johnson (1959, 1964) named N. carpentarius from 13 specimens collected on Groote Eylandt, Northern Territory in 1948. In this description, Johnson did not compare this series with the type of N. aquilo, and he was apparently also unaware that Donald Thomson had also collected hopping-mice on Groote Eylandt some five years previously (i.e. 1943-1944: with these records not documented until much later: Dixon and Huxley 1985). Subsequent comparisons revealed the conspecificity of N. carpentarius with N. aquilo (Ride 1970).

Conservation Status

As at December 2003,

the Carpentarian Antechinus Pseudantechinus mimulus is listed as:

  • Vulnerable in Australia, under the EPBCA;
  • Endangered in the Northern Territory, under regulations of the Territory Parks and Wildlife Act 2000 (by the IUCN criteria B2ab (i, ii, iii, iv, v) - area of occupancy 2; severely fragmented or known to exist at no more than five locations; and continuing decline, observed, inferred or projected);
  • Common Wildlife in Queensland, under the Nature Conservation Regulations 1994.

Butlers Dunnart Sminthopsis butleri is listed as:

  • Vulnerable in Australia, under the EPBCA;
  • Vulnerable in the Northern Territory, under regulations of the Territory Parks and Wildlife Act 2000 (by the IUCN criteria B1ab (i, ii, iii, iv, v) - extent of occurrence 2; severely fragmented or known to exist at no more than ten locations; and continuing decline, observed, inferred or projected);
  • Schedule 1 - Fauna that is rare or likely to become extinct in Western Australia, under the Wildlife Conservation (Specially Protected Fauna) Notice 2003 (Wildlife Conservation Act 1950).

Northern Hopping-mouse Notomys aquilo is listed as:

  • Vulnerable in Australia, under the EPBCA;
  • Vulnerable in the Northern Territory, under regulations of the Territory Parks and Wildlife Act 2000 (by the IUCN criteria B2ab - area of occupancy 2; severely fragmented or known to exist at no more than ten locations; and continuing decline, observed, inferred or projected);
  • Vulnerable in Queensland, under the Queensland Nature Conservation Act 1992.

In each case, the NT status is based on evaluations made in 2003. The national status typically follows assessments made in the Action Plans for Australian rodents (Lee 1995) and Marsupials and Monotremes (Maxwell et al. 1996).

Affected interests

The primary affected interests for all three species are the Australian and State/Territory conservation agencies, and particularly that of the Northern Territory, in which the bulk of the range for all three species occurs.

Much of the range of all three species is on Aboriginal lands: indeed, all recent records of butlers dunnart and northern hopping-mouse are on Aboriginal lands. In the Northern Territory, the interests managing these lands are the Tiwi Land Council (Butlers dunnart), Anindilyakwa Land Council (northern hopping-mouse), Northern Land Council (northern hopping-mouse and carpentarian antechinus), Dhimurru Aboriginal Land Management Corporation (northern hopping-mouse) and Mubanji Aboriginal Resource Association (carpentarian antechinus).

In Western Australia, the Kimberley Land Council and Wunambal-Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation manages those lands near Kalumburu on which Butlers dunnart was recorded.

In Queensland, the provenance of the single old record of northern hopping-mouse is so vague that it cannot be assigned with any confidence to any land tenure category, but may be in either Aboriginal lands, pastoral lands, conservation reserves and/or lands managed by Defence. The few recent records of carpentarian antechinus from Queensland are in pastoral leasehold and freehold lands.

None of the species is commercially exploited.

On Melville Island, Butlers dunnart occurs in sites either in or around a developing major forestry venture (oprated by Sylvatech) that replaces native vegetation with short-rotation exotic plantation species.

Parts of the range of the northern hopping-mouse occurs on lands subject to extensive strip-mining, for bauxite at Gove, and for manganese on Groote Eylandt. The first records of the carpentarian antechinus in Queensland were during a survey of the impacts of sulphur dioxide emissions around the Mt Isa mine (Griffiths 1998).

Role and interests of indigenous people

As noted in the above section, much of the range of all three species occurs on Aboriginal lands. However none of the species is known to have special significance to Aboriginal people for cultural reasons or for food resources. The two dasyurids, carpentarian antechinus and Butlers dunnart, are small and typically occur at low density, such that they would have been unlikely to have been harvested for foods. In contrast, the northern hopping-mouse is a colonial nester and may have been targeted for occasional gathering. Thomson (in Dixon and Huxley 1985) noted that Aboriginal people on Groote Eylandt sometimes excavated burrow systems of hopping-mice and collected large numbers for food. Northern hopping-mice were named wurrendinda by Aboriginal people (Anindilyakwa language) on Groote Eylandt (Waddy 1988). Other names used for the species by Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land included djirrkin, wara, hudinwara, nik-nik, dayhdayh, kidjikidjidayhdayh and kilki (Woinarski et al 1999), but in most cases these names apparently also refer to a range of other rodent species.

Thomson (in Dixon and Huxley 1985) also noted that many Aboriginal people appeared to have very little knowledge of northern hopping-mouse, even in sites where it appeared to be relatively common.

Aboriginal rangers from Dhimurru Aboriginal Land Management Corporation have conducted searches for northern hopping-mice at Nanydjaka (Cape Arnhem ) IPA.

In November 2003, Aboriginal rangers from Mubanji participated in collaborative surveys for carpentarian antechinus with scientists from the NT Department of Infrastructure Planning and Environment.

Benefits to other species

The three species considered here overlap in range and habitat requirements with a diverse assemblage of native mammals, many of which are declining across extensive areas of northern Australia (Woinarski et al. 2001). Such declining species include northern brush-tailed phascogale Phascogale (tapoatafa) pirata, brush-tailed tree-rat Conilurus penicillatus, black-footed tree-rat Mesembriomys gouldii, northern quoll Dasyurus hallucatus, northern brown bandicoot Isoodon macrourus and common brushtail possum Trichosurus vulpecula. Three of these species (northern quoll, brush-tailed tree-rat and northern brush-tailed phascogale) are classified as vulnerable in the Northern Territory.

There is some proximity in distribution between the three species considered here and the golden bandicoot Isoodon auratus and golden-backed tree-rat Mesembriomys macrurus, both considered vulnerable at national level.

Targeted management for northern hopping-mouse, carpentarian antechinus and Butlers dunnart will benefit these other mammal species. The management actions with broadest collateral benefit are:

  • improved fire management, particularly involving imposition of fine-scale burning regimes, and minimisation of broad-scale uncontrolled late dry season fires;
  • enhancing quarantining of islands to reduce likelihood of entry of new threats; and
  • broad-scale management to reduce numbers of feral cats.

Such actions will benefit not only the three mammal species considered here and at least some of the other mammals listed above, but will also have benefits for some co-occurring bird species (such as the vulnerable partridge pigeon Geophaps smithii: Fraser et al. 2003) and, with less substantial evidence, a gamut of other plant and animal species that have been adversely affected by recent changes in fire regimes (e.g. Bowman and Panton 1993; Russell-Smith et al. 1998, 2002; Franklin 1999; Bowman et al. 2001; Yibarbuk et al. 2001).

Social and economic impacts

There are no clearcut and tightly defined social and economic impacts associated with this Recovery Plan. Much of the distribution of these three species is on Aboriginal land. Research on, and management of, these species may provide some limited contributions to these local economies. The three species each have some distributional overlap or convergence with large mining or forestry operations. Conservation management for the species may come at some costs to these ventures, but such costs are generally likely to be low because the disturbances are generally not on lands that provide high quality habitat to these species. A possible exception is for Butlers dunnart on Melville Island, where forestry development may occur on, or be proposed for, habitats that have high suitability for this species.