By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 28 January 2013
This week ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls, we are going to discover what makes shelf six in Vertebrate Case 17 tick. It is not the wombat skeleton that dominates the horizon, nor the 20 or so tiny brush-tailed possum babies that are oh so cute until you look closely and realise that disturbingly many of them are missing their head. It could be the marsupial moles which are so gosh darn pretty with their golden fur (not to be confused with the actual golden moles which are around the other side because yes, they are not related). Nope, it is in fact a jar containing a lovely creature that sits nonchalantly at the back, watching passers by with an air of ambivalence. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…
1) The kowari is a marsupial in shrew’s clothing. The long tail, pointed snout and large eyes are all very shrew-ish, but the two are not related. In so much as they are not closely related because of course every animal is related to each other in one way or another. The kowari comes in a range of shades from light grey-brown to sandy-brown, with expensive looking red highlights, and a white belly and throat to set off the look.
2) Communication amongst kowaris is dynamic and varied. A threatened and insecure feeling kowari will emit a loud, staccato chattering noise, much like a child in Disneyland. A confident, extroverted kowari will demonstrate an aggressive mood with a hiss, accompanied by vigorous tail movements. Besides verbal communication, scientists believe that the kowari will also use the black ‘brush’ of fur on the tip of the tail as a way of communicating with others. Though unfortunately, we are yet to discover what it is saying.
3) The stony deserts of Australia are the favourite haunts of the kowari. Not my idea of a kicking Friday night venue, this type of desert is sparse in vegetation and what there is, is limited to a variety of ‘boring’ shrubs. The lack of trees means the kowari is obviously going to be a primarily terrestrial marsupial but it does however, have some mean climbing skills when the situation allows for it. It is also capable of making really rather impressive vertical leaps.
4) Despite the lack of obvious celebrity venue choice, the kowari enjoys the night life. Although not completely nocturnal it is most active at night and tends to wile away the would be hangover filled days sheltering in a burrow nicely furnished with leaves and a range of other types of vegetation that provide a layer of soft bedding. Although the kowari can dig its own burrow, why exert yourself carrying out hard manual labour when you can employ others to do it, and so more often than not, the kowari will take over the burrow of another species and then build extensions and redecorate, as it requires. Like an MP, the kowari may also have a holiday home style second property nearby that it uses concurrently with the first. Perhaps a little less like an MP, the kowari is a friendly fellow and will readily share its burrow with other individuals.
5) Going on a date with a kowari would involve a carnivorous dinner of insects, spiders, and if you’re lucky, some small vertebrates. If you are unlucky, you will get served up some rotting carrion, finished with a topping of buzzing flies. Be careful however, not to ask out a kowari when food is scare as not only will you have to skip dinner, but the entertainment value of a kowari during harsh times is severely limited. So you are likely to be bored as well. When no food is available, the kowari is able to slow down its metabolism and enter a kind of hibernation-esque state called torpor. It is only for short periods of time but can definitely mean the difference between sticking it out curled up in your cosy burrow with your fluffy tail keeping your nose warm, and starvation. On that basis, torpor would definitely my prefurred option.
Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Museum Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology