A tiny, adorable (and aggressive!) marsupial has been rediscovered in the deserts of Australia's New South Wales (NSW) state after not being seen for more than 100 years.
The crest-tailed mulgara (Dasycercus cristicauda) has been known in NSW only from fossilized bone fragments but was discovered in Sturt National Park during a scientific monitoring expedition. The find was announced Dec. 15.
"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," Ecologist Rebecca West said in a statement released by University of New South Wales Sydney's (UNSW) Wild Deserts project.
Not extinct, but still at risk
The crest-tailed mulgara looks like a cute little rodent. It weighs around 5 ounces, has sand-colored fur and an easily identifiable black crest on its tail, according to West. And don't let the cute factor sway you; this creature is quite the hunter and has been known to attack prey much bigger than itself.
This particular mulgara still thrives in a few other states in Australia, including the deserts of Central Australia. But the number of crest-tailed mulgara is difficult to determine, per a report from Science Alert.
Until 2005, the crest-tailed mulgara and the brush-tailed mulgara were believed to be the same species. Genetic testing confirmed that they were different species, with only a few readily apparent differences. While they're both roughly the same size (12 inches or so) and the same fur color, the crest-tailed mulgara has the aforementioned crest on its less-bushy tail, and it has eight nipples compared to the brush-tailed mulgara's six.
The crest-tailed mulgara is considered vulnerable in the Northern Territory and Queensland, endangered in South Australia and, until last week, extinct in NSW.
The invasive species West mentioned — rabbits, cats and foxes — arrived with European settlers, and those species likely edged out the mulgara. But now that the mulgara has reappeared, it suggests that these invasive creatures may not have had the staying power, whether it be a lack of prey in the ecosystem, a culling done by conservationists or, as in rabbits' cases, a decline due to disease.
An unexpected beneficiary
The Wild Desert project is engaged in an effort to reintroduce regionally extinct species into their former habitats, making the rediscovery of the crest-tailed mulgara a happy accident.
"The aim of this project is to return mammal species not seen in their natural habitat for over 90 years in Sturt National Park," National Parks and Wildlife Service area manager Jaymie Norris said in the UNSW statement. "Rabbits, cats and foxes will be eradicated from two 20-square-kilometer fenced exclosures in Sturt National Park, before locally extinct mammals are reintroduced."
The project's original roster of animals included the greater bilby, the burrowing bettong, the western quoll and the western barred bandicoot. The mulgara will likely benefit from the reduction or exclusion of these invasive species, too.