The small carnivorous marsupial, known only from fossilized bone fragments called a crest-tailed mulgara, (Dasycercus cristicauda) has been extinct in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, for more than a century. Well, that’s before discovering it in the Sturt National Park, northwest of Tibooburra.
The unexpected discovery was made by a team from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney’s Wild Deserts Project during recent scientific monitoring. The Wild Deserts Project is an initiative that was started at the beginning of this year, and aims to bring back seven locally extinct mammals.
Dr. Rebecca West, a UNSW scientist and Wild Deserts ecologist, recalls that it was particularly exciting to find a crest-tailed mulgara alive for the first time in NSW, explaining that:
“The crest-tailed mulgara was once widely distributed across sandy desert environments in inland Australia, but declined due to the effects of rabbits, cats, and foxes.
“The species weighs around 150 grams, and has pale blonde fur and a thick tail with a distinctive black crest.”
Wild Deserts project co-ordinator Reece Pedler said that the discovery couldn’t have come at a better time, as the team is due to begin introduced predator and rabbit eradication programs, saying:
“Next year, we are due to begin introduced predator and rabbit eradication from a large area, which will no doubt help the mulgara.”
National Parks and Wildlife Service area manager Jaymie Norris says the Wild Deserts project is contributing to the NSW Government’s Saving our Species conservation program (SOS):
“The aim of this project is to return mammal species not seen in their natural habitat for over 90 years in Sturt National Park.
“Rabbits, cats, and foxes will be eradicated from two 20-square-kilometer fenced exclosures in Sturt National Park, before locally extinct mammals are reintroduced.
“Reintroduced native mammal species will include greater bilby, burrowing bettong, Western quoll, and Western barred bandicoot.”
Carnivorous marsupial expanding its range
Previous work by Wild Deserts team members indicates that the crest-tailed mulgara has been recovering in numbers and has also been expanding its range. The increase in ground cover due to the reduction in rabbit populations over the last 20 years by the release of rabbit calicivirus is also thought to have benefited the species.
Reducing the populations of introduced predators, such as cats and foxes, has also helped to increase the numbers of small rodents for the carnivorous marsupial to prey on.
There are two species of mulgara in Australia — the crest-tailed and the brush-tailed mulgara. The crest-tailed can be distinguished by the arrangement of black hairs along the back half of the tail, which form more of a dorsal crest along its tail.