2020: Year of the (brush-tailed) Rat

The arrival of the Chinese Year of the Rat has delivered with it some exciting news about a native rodent. Uunguu Rangers on Wunambal Gaambera Country have confirmed that the vulnerably endangered, Brush-tailed Rabbit-Rat (Conilurus penicillatus) is thriving in Western Australia.

Colloquially known as the ‘Rabbit-Rat’, the large-eared rodent is thought to have arrived in Australia at least four to five million years ago. The Brush-tailed Rabbit-Rat is thought to be the only remaining member of its genus, with the two eastern states species assumed to be extinct.

From what is known about the small rodent, historically, the habitat of the creature would extend across the monsoonal areas of northern Australia, but is now limited to Groote Eylandt, Inglis Island, the Tiwi Islands, Cobourg Peninsula and Kakadu in the Northern Territory, as well as high rainfall areas of the Kimberley in WA.

The Rabbit-Rat has been found thriving in WA. Photo supplied.

Recent records of the species have also been found in the Mitchell Plateau and Mount Trafalgar in the Prince Regent Nature Reserve in the West Kimberley.

The Northern Territory Government have reported that while there was no single factor that has resulted in the decline of the species, it’s probably due predatory animals, in particular feral cats.

Rangers on the Tiwi Islands and in Kakadu are also working with ecologists to try increase the rodent’s population, which has declined steadily since data was collected in 2000.

The Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC) have been monitoring the Rabbit-Rat along with many other culturally significant and threatened species, to ensure land and pest management are not having a detrimental effect on the species.

“Since 2016 we have been using camera traps to monitor small and medium-sized mammals, and in 2018 and 2019 we received funding from the Australian Government’s Threatened Species Recovery Fund to investigate the status of the Rabbit-Rat in Wunambal Gaambera Country.”

“Rats and mice are called luulun and munjul in our languages. There are several different species ranging from large to small,” a spokesperson for WGAC said.

The cameras have been deployed at many sites, including Mitchell Plateau (Ngauwudu). The impact of this monitoring has been able to show an increase in the location of the endangered species.

“Rabbit-Rats were detected at known sites at Ngauwudu and were detected at two new sites in the western Lawley [area].”

“Camera traps are a highly effective tool for monitoring the species as they are attracted to the bait stations and are readily identified from images,” the WGAC spokesperson said.

The project provided Uunguu Rangers with over 146 days of employment over two years, with half of those days being performed by full-time Indigenous Rangers and the rest by Traditional Owners employed on a casual basis for the project.

WGAC acknowledged the support they have received as part of the project from the Australian Government, along with Bush Heritage Australia and the WWF.

It’s hoped the project will enable continual monitoring and that more endangered species can be found and studied to increase the population.

By Caris Duncan

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