Blonde, blind and beautiful: rare marsupial mole sighted

Blonde, blind and beautiful: rare marsupial mole sighted

P1060939

By Tracy Sorensen

While some of Australia’s marsupials are international stars – the kangaroo and the koala spring to mind – some are barely known and rarely sighted.

The marsupial mole is one of these. The mole is a cute, but rather odd little animal. It has long blonde silky fur, is completely blind and has only vestigal ears. It lives almost entirely underground in the Gibson desert between the Western Australian and Northern Territory borders, far away from prying eyes.

But the mole has had a recent outing, as ecologist and interpreter Dr Boyd Wright tells National Radio News.

Dr Wright, who speaks Pintupi-Luritja, the language of many of the traditional owners of the land around the settlement of Kiwirrkurra, was in the area in June as a part of Bush Blitz, where traditional owners and western scientists compare notes and learn about native plants and animals together. The group was travelling in two cars when someone caught sight of a small animal dashing across the road.

“The Aboriginal ladies saw a little animal cross their path on the road in front and they thought it was a desert mouse at first,” says Dr Wright. “But then they realised it was something different and they jumped out. They all realised what it was.”

The animal is so rare that some of the Aboriginal women, expert hunters who maintain traditional knowledge and practices, had never seen one.

Dr Wright was pleased to hold one for a moment.

“They like to burrow into your hand. They’re obviously good diggers,” he says. “Everyone was really happy and impressed to find one. They figured it must have come up out of the ground because it had been raining quite a bit out there and it probably wanted to dry out a bit.”

The animals are completely blind and live most of the time underground on a diet of beetle grubs and cossid moth grubs. They’re also said to eat scorpions and centipedes.

Dr Wright says the marsupial mole is a good example of “convergent evolution” where animals in different parts of the world take on similar characteristics in order to adapt to a particular environmental niche.

“It’s similar to the moles in England and these things have adapted to life underground well with extremely good digging claws and no need for sight.”

Dr Wright first visited the area with a team of scientists from Queensland, the Northern Territory and Canberra researching the effects of fire on a desert shrub, Aluta maisonneuvei or desert myrtle.

“It’s a really interesting shrub that forms dense stands in sandhill country,” says Dr Wright. “It often gets burnt pretty badly by fires driven by spinifex fuels.”

Then last year, as a speaker of Pintupi-Luritja, he was engaged as an interpreter for scientist Kate Crossing and others engaged in the Bush Blitz project. As a plant ecologist, Dr Wright was able to help translate information about food plants between the two cultures.

This sort of collaboration between traditional Aboriginal peoples and western scientists is growing in popularity.

“Kiwirrkurra is an absolute hot spot for this stuff,” says Dr Wright. “It’s fantastic, they’re a very active community in terms of going out and continuing to live off the land. They’re excellent hunters, they can hunt anything, their knowledge of plant use is pretty much as good as any people I’ve ever met.”

He says there is a group of people living in the community that were living a traditional nomadic lifestyle as recently as 1984 without contact with white Australia.

Listen to Dr Wright talking about his encounter with the marsupial mole

 

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