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Happy 78th Thylacine Day: Remember the little guys

By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2014

Today, in Australia, is National Threatened Species Day, but far more importantly. to Grant Museumers, it’s Thylacine Day. Both of these events commemorate the ludicrously avoidable death of the last known thylacine – modern times’ largest marsupial carnivore – on 7th September 1936. Today, for the first time, I am actually in Australia for 7th September, so in this year’s annual Thylacine Day post I’d like to explore what it is about Australian mammals that makes me go all nerdy – the shear diversity of tiny things, that on the whole people have no idea about. (For more on the thylacine, including why we celebate it so hard at the Grant, look through previous Thylacine Day posts on this blog).

The area of zoology I am most passionate about is Australian mammals, and as a result I spend 8-10 weeks each year over here trapping animals for conservation NGOs and university research programmes. As far as I’m concerned, although there are just 378 mammal species in Australia, it’s the best fauna there is. You only have to go 50km and you might find a whole new set of mammals. Australia has a lot of things going for it, but I will shout you down if you argue that any of them outshine the wildlife and ecosystems. The thing is so few people here, or elsewhere, have ever heard of most of them. Sure, people know that kangaroos and wallabies exist – they are the national icon, but go into any business and ask what kind of wallaby is chewing on its lawn and you’ll probably get a blank response. There are 45 species of Australian kangaroo and wallaby (excluding bettongs and pottoroos). People’s lofts and gardens are pested by possums (nearly always one species – the brushtail), but there are 25 different kinds. Once you get beyond these, koalas, wombats, dingoes, platypuses, echidnas and “bandicoots” (11 species), the rest of the Australian mammalian fauna, I fear, goes largely unloved.

I’m not whinging about the fact that people don’t see tiny mammals and instantly know what it is. I just want to take the time to give them a shout-out.

My current trip has lasted a month, the first half of which was spent trapping Tasmanian devils for the University of Tasmania’s research into the terrible contagious cancer that is currently pushing them towards thylacineishness. I am very much aware of how lucky I am to have that kind of opportunity (read about the last time I was involved in that programme in these posts), but given that devil traps only catch devils and quolls, I spent every evening of that period, and the two weeks since, searching out the smaller, less well known species in Tasmania, and then tropical north Queensland. I’ve just done the count and I managed to see 35 different mammal species (nearly 10%). You’d be forgiven for accusing me of list-ticking or stamp collecting in a statement like that (and I do actually tick them off, but that doesn’t mean I’m not delighted to see things many times), but mostly my motivation is the pleasure I get in just knowing the little species are there.

Everyone knows that Australia is a continent of marsupials, but actually there have been two different colonisation “events” in its deep history by rodents, and there are nearly 70 species of little ratty and mousey things. Among the marsupials too are tiny rodent-sized beasties – tiny carnivorous marsupials from the same family as the devil – nearly 60 species of antechinuses, planigales, dunnarts and phascogales. It’s these small Aussie mammals that I love the most. Sure, they’re the hardest to see (which is why I work with organisations that trap them for science), and the hardest to identify in the field, but that’s all part of the charm.

In four trips to Tasmania I’d never seen the dusky antechinus, but this time, whilst sat waiting for a platypus, one ran out in front of me. I couldn’t have been more excited. Antechinuses are range in size from mouse to rat, but they are marsupials – just like kangaroos, and have a mouth full of sharp carnivorous/insectivorous teeth. (Incidentally, a couple of weeks later in an alpine hut in the southwest wilderness, another dusky antechinus attempted to raid our food, so that was pretty cool too).

My favourite mammals to trap are planigales. They are the smallest marsupials in the world (weighing as little as 2 grammes) but have the biggest load of chutzpah I’ve ever seen. Here is one saying hello:

So this September 7th (or every day, if you like), raise a glass and remember the thylacine, and everything that was done to drive it to extinction. But this year please do have a sip for the less famous mammals in Australia that are still hanging on (some only just) – the bush rats, hopping mice, rock rats, pebble-mound mice, stick nest rats, dunnarts, false and true antechinuses, kultarrs, kowaris, dibblers, quolls and planigales.

Happy Thylacine Day. Lest we forget,

Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology

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