This article featured in Wildlife Lands Issue 21

Northern (Notoryctes caurinus) and southern (Notoryctes typhlops) marsupial moles are considered some of the most elusive animals in Australia due to their rarity, remote habitats, and extraordinary habits. Listed as endangered, they are not closely related to any other taxa and comprise their own unique marsupial order, which may have branched off from other lineages as far as 64 million years ago.

Most small to medium-sized animals in the desert spend time sheltering underground due to wildly fluctuating temperatures, but marsupial moles have taken this behaviour to the extreme and are able to live their entire lives there, feeding on insects and their eggs, larvae and pupae, and having such modest oxygen requirements that they can subsist by breathing the air between sand grains. Their physiology displays a number of special adaptations to underground living: vestigial eyes with no trace of an optic nerve; a lack of external ears; a calloused, shield-like nose; rear opening pouch; and scoop-shaped hands featuring spade-like claws to force the sand beneath the mole’s body as it moves forward.

Marsupial moles’ preferred habitat is shrubby, sandy dunes, often associated with spinifex grasses. Such habitat is typical of the sandy deserts, and the range of both species aligns closely with the sandy soils of Australia’s central desert region, including the Tanami, Gibson, Great Sandy, Little Sandy, western Simpson and Great Victoria Deserts.

Due to their elusive nature there is a degree of uncertainty regarding threats to marsupial moles, but remains present  in the scats of foxes and feral cats indicates some predation, and is particularly alarming considering how rarely live individuals are sighted in the wild. When occasionally surfacing (perhaps in times of heavy rain when oxygen flow is disrupted) marsupial moles face much increased vulnerability to a range of predators such as birds of prey, snakes and goannas.

Trampling and habitat impacts caused by cattle and camel populations are also thought to be a threat to marsupial moles, while altered fire and grazing regimes have the potential to greatly modify the vegetation of habitats, and thus the availability of prey species such as ants, insect larvae and termites.

The northern and southern marsupial moles were among the very first species nominated by Humane Society International for protection under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) almost two decades ago. As a direct consequence of HSI’s nominations, a Recovery Plan for Marsupial Moles was developed in 2006 and both species were included in various Commonwealth species management plans. The Recovery Plan earmarked a total of $959,100 to be invested in marsupial mole recovery over 5 years, including monitoring population trends conducting studies on the effects of predators, fire and grazing on marsupial mole abundance.

In 2011, the marsupial moles were included in the EPBC Act Survey Guidelines for Australia’s threatened mammals. This is an essential component of protecting threatened species and demonstrates the worth of nominations for listings under federal law. A similarly important document, the 1996 Action Plan for Australian Marsupials and Monotremes, was commissioned to review species’ conservation status and allot “Action Scores” reflecting the lack of knowledge and conservation management for each taxa. Both the northern and southern marsupial moles received the maximum score, a concerning sign following more than 19 years of Commonwealth protection.

HSI is proud to have initiated proceedings that have seen funding made available to better understand and recover populations of these enigmatic examples of Australian wildlife, but it is clear more needs to be done. Without detailed knowledge of their behaviours and conservation status, the danger that we are unwittingly sending marsupial moles towards extinction remains.