A pocket-size predator thought to be pushing up daisies in New South Wales has been rediscovered in the inland Australian region.
During recent monitoring, scientists from the Wild Deserts conservation group spotted the first crest-tailed mulgara in Tibooburra's Sturt National Park in more than a hundred years. The small, carnivorous marsupial is a Guinea pig-size relative of the Tasmanian devil, says ecologist Rebecca West, who was involved with the find. The mammal weighs less than five-and-a-half ounces and sports a coat of pale, blond fur. Its thick tail, measuring a little less than half its body length, is tipped with a distinctive black crest that gives the animal its name. West adds the "ferocious little micro predator" eats small mammals, reptiles, and insects.
After West and Wild Deserts project coordinator Reece Pedler found the mulgara, which was an immature female, they measured it and released it back into the desert in the hopes that it would find a mate and reproduce. The researchers recognized the mammal because they had worked with this species in other parts of Australia before.
Going forward, West says they will keep an eye out for mulgara tracks and feces, since they now know the animal is back in the region.
Invasive rabbits, cats, and foxes brought to the area by European settlers centuries ago were thought to have driven the mulgara to local extinction. For a time, the marsupial was only known from fossilized bone fragments found in owl pellets in caves across the region. But recently, the mulgara has expanded its numbers across the border in South Australia's Strzelecki Desert, which lies about 175 miles north-west of Sturt National Park.
The fortuitous find comes at an exciting time for Wild Deserts. The project, which is a partnership between the University of New South Wales Sydney and the wildlife group Ecological Horizons with government organizations, was already planning to contribute to federal conservation efforts before the discovery.
"Next year we are due to begin introduced predator and rabbit eradication for a large area, which will no doubt help the mulgara," Pedler says in a UNSW press release.
The conservation project will set up Sturt National Park as a sanctuary with two fenced exoclosures to keep predators away. After those have been erected in early 2018 and the invasive populations decline, the scientists will observe how the ecosystem changes. By 2019, West says they're planning to reintroduce locally extinct mammals like the greater bilby, burrowing bettong, Western quoll, and Western barred bandicoot.
Bilbys, with the exception of the extinct lesser bilby, can be found in Queensland and sections of north-west Australia. Quolls, West adds, have recently been reintroduced to parts of western Australia. Bettongs and bandicoots are similarly threatened.
"If we reduce those [predator] populations down enough, then we have a chance of establishing these threatened species," West says.
Crest-tailed mulgaras were also slated to be reintroduced to the area through the conservation program, but it appears the mammal has already weaseled its way back into the park. This may be because of a decline in the local rabbit population due to rabbit calicivirus, a widespread leporine hemorrhagic disease.
West is optimistic to see more of these resilient mammals populating the park in the future.
"They look like they might be making a comeback on their own," she says. "We'll just have to see."
This story has been updated with information from Wild Deserts.