Mole Patrol
 

The Mole Patrol Package 

Please click on thumbnail pictures to enlarge

In recent times we have had an unusual number of calls and enquiries about the Marsupial Mole (Notoryctes spp.) and we, like many of our callers, know very little about this elusive creature.     By sheer coincidence it has been during this time we were contacted by Jarrad Holmes who asked if we would like to include an article on the Marsupial Mole in one of our publications.   We jumped at the chance to ‘spread the word’ as it were.

So, what follows is a package produced by Jarrad with the help of many others (acknowledgements listed below), including his covering letter, and is reproduced here 

We hope you will enjoy reading about this very secretive and seldom seen native Australian animal.

Acknowledgements

The Natural heritage Trust
The National Parks and Wildlife S.A.
Earthwatch Institute
Threatened Species Network
Rio Tinto

The compilation and dissemination of the Mole Patrol information package was funded by Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Management through the Natural Heritage Trust.
All photographs in this information package are
copyright to Dr. Joe Benshemesh and with the permission of Anangu and should not be used elsewhere without their approval.

Jarrad Holmes
C/o Threatened Species Network
PO Box 2796
Alice Springs N.T 0870
Telephone (08) 8952 1541
E-mail:jholmes@wwf.org.au

Dear Mole Patroller

Hello and welcome on board the Mole Patrol team! The Marsupial Mole is undoubtedly one of the most poorly understood mammals to inhabit Australia. With the help of yourself and other Mole Patrollers, we can gain valuable information to aid in the conservation of this very interesting marsupial. 

Since 1999, a research project studying the ecology of Marsupial Moles has been underway in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands of northern South Australia. The project is a partnership between Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Council Land Management, the Natural Heritage Trust, Department for Environment and Heritage South Australia, Rio Tinto Aboriginal Foundation, the EarthWatch Institute and the Threatened Species Network. The success of the project to date can be largely credited to the indigenous people from the Walalkara and Watarru communities, whose knowledge and expertise has greatly assisted principal researcher Dr Joe Benshemesh and EarthWatch Institute volunteers in gathering valuable information on this elusive species. Most of the work to date has been in designing and refining survey techniques. As this work continues, another stage of the project is to gain an understanding of the distribution and abundance of Marsupial Moles across Australia.
That is where we, the Mole Patrollers, play a major role.

The Mole Patrol information package will help you to learn what Marsupial Moles look like, the type of tracks and holes that they make, the survey techniques available and what information should be recorded. The data record sheets that we will gather across Australia through the Mole Patrol team will be extremely valuable in developing a management plan for the species.

Thank you
for your assistance in helping us to learn more about this remarkable marsupial.  Seek and you shall find! Enjoy.

Kind Regards,
Jarrad Holmes
Marsupial Mole Extension Officer

Fact Sheet

Southern Marsupial Mole, Itjaritjari

The Southern Marsupial Mole, or Itjaritjari as it is known by Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people in Central Australia (and widely adopted by westerners), is a very unusual animal. About the size of a small rat, it has no visible eyes and only rudimentary ear openings, offset by a well-developed olfactory system. Its thick fur is silky and pale-golden in colour, and it has a horny shield of heavily keratinised skin covering the nose. The front paws have greatly enlarged spade-like claws that allow it to rapidly burrow through sand. Females have a backwards-opening pouch.
 

Contrary to what the name suggests, Marsupial Moles are not related to the European or African moles but rather have evolved in a similar way because they inhabit similar environments (an example of convergent evolution). Humans are more closely related to European and African moles than what Itjaritjari are!

 Population Size

Itjaritjari is listed as Endangered because there have been few records of this species over the last fifty years. Virtually all Itjaritjari specimens have been collected by Aboriginal people, and as these people no longer travel extensively over traditional lands on foot this may contribute to the false impression that Itjaritjari is declining across its known range. Further survey work is needed to establish the conservation status.

 Habitat & Range

Itjaritjari inhabits spinifex- (Triodia species) dominated sand dune and sand plain country in the central sandy desert regions of Western Australia, South Australia, Northern Territory and possibly south west Queensland. Its fossorial (burrowing underground) habit, combined with its distribution across sparsely populated desert regions, has meant that this species is seldom seen except by Aboriginal people, or during periods of intensive survey work. The many aboriginal names for the Southern Marsupial Mole indicates that they are well known to aboriginal people and were (and possibly still) widely distributed.  Itjaritjari is closely related to the Northern Marsupial Mole, or Kakarratul as it is known by many aboriginal groups. The only notable difference between the species is in their distribution and that Kakarratul are slightly smaller.

 Ecology and Lifecycle

Itjaritjari spends the bulk of its time burrowing and backfilling through sand, leaving no tunnel, just the trace of its passage in mole holes (the small, circular impression visible in a soil profile through which an Itjaritjari has passed). Coming to the surface only briefly, most often after rain, it uses its spade-like front claws to drag the body over the surface in an undulatory motion, while shoving with its hind limbs. In loose sand Itjaritjari leaves a distinctive track of three wavy parallel furrows, the broken outer two tracks formed by its legs, and the inner solid furrow formed by the tail.

Mostly insectivorous, Itjaritjari eats the eggs, larvae and pupae of various species, including beetles, moths, ants and sawflys captured underground.  Little is known about the reproduction cycle of Marsupial Moles, as no animals have survived for long in captivity, and there have been very few observations of breeding in wild populations. The breeding season is thought to be around November when one or two young are born, and these are nursed in the pouch which contains two teats. It seems that Itjaritjari are solitary for most of their life, and it is not known how males find females to ensure reproduction of the species.

Threats

Marsupial Mole fur often turns up in scats of cats and foxes in Central Australia. A scat analysis study by Paltridge (1999) found Marsupial Mole remains in about 10% of fox scats, 5% cat scats, and 3% dingo scats. These findings indicate either that Marsupial Moles are relatively abundant, or that predation pressure on this species is high.

Other factors such as compaction of soil by stock and camel movements or by vehicles, may be potential threats to the long-term survival of this species. It is unclear as yet whether fire plays a role in influencing habitat suitability for Itjaritjari, and further work comparing Itjaritjari abundance in areas with different fire histories is needed to help elucidate this.

Management and Recovery Actions

There is no Recovery Plan for the Southern Marsupial Mole at this stage, as too little is known about the ecology, distribution, conservation status and threatening processes for this species to formulate such a plan.

Important research work is currently underway for Itjaritjari on Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in northern South Australia. In a collaborative project between Traditional Owners, researcher Dr Joe Benshemesh, the Department for Environment and Heritage SA, and Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Council Land Management, data is being collected on the ecology and distribution of Itjaritjari.

Effort is also being put into refining the methodology for detecting Itjaritjari presence, so that this might be applied to larger areas to obtain data on regional distribution and abundance. Once more is known about the current status and threats to Itjaritjari survival, it will be possible to develop a management strategy for this species.

How you can help

Given the remote nature of the country inhabited by Marsupial Moles there are few opportunities for community involvement in recovery work for this species. However, if you are traveling in Central Australia and happen to see a Marsupial Mole on the surface, please report details of your sighting (including location, date, time of day, weather conditions, type of habitat, and behaviour of the animal) to the closest National Park Ranger Office, or to the Threatened Species Network. If you come across a dead animal, place the animal in a plastic bag and put it into a fridge (not freezer) and deliver it to the nearest National Park Ranger Office and contact the local State/Territory Museum. All of this information will help improve our understanding of the distribution and conservation status of Marsupial Moles.


CONSERVATION STATUS

National EPBC Act: Endangered
NT: Endangered
SA: Endangered
WA: Endangered

Scientific Name for the  Southern Marsupial Mole:
Notoryctes typhlops
Aboriginal names:
Itjaritjari (Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara)
Yitjarritjarri, Purrtjapa (Pintupi, Luritja)

Scientific Name for the  Northern Marsupial Mole:
Notoryctes caurinus
Aboriginal names:
Kakarratul (Pintupi, Luritja)
Mantararrarr (Manytjilytjarra)
 

Contacts
 
Threatened Species Network NT
Ph. (08) 8952 1541
tsnnt@ozemail.com.au
 
Anangu Pitjantjatjara
Yankunytjatjara Council Land Management
Ph. (08) 8954 8173
 
Dept. Environment & Heritage SA
Ph. (08) 8204 8781
 
Jarrad Holmes
jholmes@wwf.org.au

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How Can I Help in the Conservation of Itjaritjari?

One way in which you can help to conserve this remarkable marsupial is to help us to gain a better understanding of its current distribution by recording and reporting Itjaritjari and their surface signs.  This handout contains a general overview of the various methods currently used to detect the presence of Itjaritjari. Some methods are easy once you know what you are looking for (i.e. surface signs), while others are a bit more complicated and technical and need further explanation than what is provided in this handout. If you do see Itjaritjari sign, please remember to record all relevant details immediately onto the data recording sheet and to take a photograph if possible (please include a scale in the photo e.g. centimeter scale (see data recording sheet), matchbox or pen).

PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB OR CAPTURE LIVE MOLES.

 

References

Benshemesh, J., and Johnson, K. (2002). The biology and conservation of marsupial moles: Unique Aussie diggers.  In: Predators with pouches: The biology of carnivorous marsupials (ed. M. Jones and C. Dickman).  CSIRO, Canberra.

Johnson, K. (1991) The mole who comes in from the sun. pp 8-9 Wildlife Australia, Spring issue.

Maxwell, S., Burbidge, A.A. and Morris, K. D. (1996) The 1996 Action Plan for Australian Marsupials and Monotremes. Wildlife Australia Endangered Species Program, Canberra.

Paltridge, R. (1999) Occurrence of Marsupial Mole (Notoryctes typhlops) remains in the fecal pellets of cats, foxes and dingoes in the Tanami Desert, NT. Australian Mammalogy 20 427-429.

 Incidental Track Sightings

When Itjaritjari occasionally do surface they leave very distinctive tracks and other signs. These signs are usually infrequent, even where Itjaritjari are common. The pattern of tracks on the surface is also important as this provides an indication of how long the animal spent there.  While Itjaritjari are on the surface they are helpless against a large range of predators, and thus an understanding of their behaviour on the surface provides insights into their susceptibility to predators.

How will I recognize Itjaritjari sign? 

Surface trails: the tracks made by an Itjaritjari as it shuffles along the surface are very distinctive. The continuous track in the sand is made by the dragging of the tail, but sometimes the track may be three parallel furrows if it has been dragging its two front arms through the sand as well. The trail may be long and convoluted and crisscross an area, or they may be short and straight.  

Exits and entrances.  Where Itjaritjari comes out of the ground, it leaves a circular hole 3-4 cm in diameter.  These holes are usually not vertical and are hollow only to a depth of 2-4 cm.  Where it goes back into the ground, it leaves a small mound of loose sand about 8-12 centimetres in diameter .  Exits and entrances may persist for days or even weeks after the tracks have vanished.

Uplifted earth: The presence of Itjaritjari can be revealed by a trail of uplifted earth as they move just below the surface.  These uplifted trails are usually about 7 cm wide and can occur as an unbroken line. Very long and narrow(i.e. 1-2 cm wide) uplifted trails are probably made by an orthopteran insect called a Sand-groper (Cylindracheta sp.).  

Sometimes only a few pushed up mounds where the Itjaritjari has nearly surfaced may exist (mounds 7cm wide)). Other desert creatures make similar small mounds.

 Seeing Itjaritjari on the Surface

Itjaritjari are very rarely seen because they spend most of their time underground. In the past, those that have been found on the surface are either dead or die soon after capture (they are very sensitive animals). If you do find a dead animal, please record all the relevant details (see data recording sheet), put the animal into a plastic bag and store it in a fridge, then contact your nearest National Park Ranger Office or State/Territory Museum. If you find an animal that is alive, do not disturb it. Record all relevant details and observe (how far and often it moves, did it die later on in the day etc). The information gathered simply by observing the animal is more valuable than capturing it and having it die soon afterwards.

Other Methods For Detecting Itjaritjari Presence

The following methods are used when intensively surveying for Marsupial Moles. Digging trenches, the collection of predator scats, 3D trenching and seismic sensing are not practical for the majority of Mole Patrollers. If you are interested in these techniques and would like to get involved, you can either contact the Threatened Species Network for more information or for places and dates of field demonstrations, or you could participate in an EarthWatch expedition, held 3 to 4 times annually on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands of northern South Australia. Visit the website for details http://www.earthwatch.org

Survey Trenches

This is for those of you who want to burn a few calories. This technique is used to detect Itjaritjari sign underground, not to capture live Itjaritjari. Itjaritjari leave distinctive, sand-filled tunnels behind them as they travel underground, and these ‘mole-holes’ are often evident in the walls of trenches .

 How and where will I dig a trench? 

Survey trenches need only be small (about 100 cm long by 40 cm wide and 80 cm deep) They are best located within 20 m of the crest of a sand dune on the northern side. Mole-holes are often only detected once the surface has dried out, hence trenches should be orientated with their long axis east-west so that one of the long trench walls faces north. Cut away the northern edge of the trench to increase sunlight on the southern (i.e. north facing) wall.  Square off the sides of the trench and rub with hand to present a flat, smooth and even surface. 

Current research in the A.P.Y Lands of S.A has found that a series of four survey trenches 50 metres apart provides a good sample at a location and a high confidence in presence/absence of Itjaritjari can be achieved. Not bad for a few hours work! Whether this is also applicable to other areas of Australia it is not yet known. Small animals may fall into survey trenches so it is important to provide an escape route so that they do not die (i.e. long branch).

How do I read trenches?

You may see some ‘fresh’ mole-holes immediately after digging the trench. Nonetheless, the trench face should be left to dry for at least 48 hours (preferably 72) so as to detect the older and fainter mole-holes. The size and shape of the hole varies depending on the angle and direction that the Itjaritjari was traveling in relation to the trench wall.  An Itjaritjari traveling perpendicular to the trench wall will leave a round hole of about 4cm in diameter. Lightly rubbing the surface with your hand will usually make the signs clearer.

What do I record if I dig a trench?

The location of the trench and a photo of the trench in the surrounding landscape.    When the trench was dug and when it was read for mole-holes.

The size of the trench and the area of the wall that was read for mole-holes

How many mole-holes are present and for each mole-hole: (1) minimum and maximum dimensions, (2) depth from the surface and (3) a scaled close up photograph (preferably use centimeter scale on data sheet)

All trenches should be filled in when finished.
Send records to (and for more information):
Jarrad Holmes: C/O Threatened Species Network, 
PO Box 2796, Alice Springs N.T 0870
Telephone (08) 8952 1541
E-mail: jholmes@wwf.org.au

Three Dimensional Trenching

3D trenching is used to collect data on what Itjaritjari do under the surface (i.e. where they go, do they meet up, do they have a favourite feeding spot?). The technique involves digging a trench, plotting the mole-holes in the trench, then taking a 5cm slice off the trench wall to expose a new face where the mole-holes are plotted once more.

Predator Scats

The scats of dingoes, foxes and cats are collected and analysed to determine how often Itjaritjari are eaten by predators and to obtain data on Itjaritjari distribution. If Itjaritjari are present in an area that you have visited, and you have seen predator scats in close proximity, please contact me and I can arrange to have some scats analysed.

Seismic Sensing
Itjaritjari make a distinctive sound when they are burrowing through sand. By placing geophones in a grid pattern over a sand dune, we can listen in on their movements. Valuable data can be collected such as information on how common Itjaritjari are, how they spend their time during the day, if they have a home range and if they are sociable animals.

 

Walalkara Indigenous Protected Area Ranger Robin Kankanpakantja is listening to the sound of an Itjaritjari burrowing through the sand.

Traditional owner Mary Pan holding one of the few Itjaritjari people have ever seen.    Traditional owners have played an integral role in recent Itjaritjari research and have worked hard and enthusiastically as part of the successful research team.

 

 

 

Where Can I Find Some More Information About Itjaritjari?

If this information package doesn’t satisfy your thirst for knowledge on this little Aussie digger, then maybe some of the material below can help.

Websites

 

If you would like to read the Environment Australia fact sheet on Marsupial Moles see:
http://www.ea.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/information/factsheets/south-mole.html

For general information about Environment Australia and the Natural Heritage Trust see: http://www.ea.gov.au/index.html

To learn about the Threatened Species Network and other projects currently underway see: (Marsupial Mole Fact Sheet soon to be added to this site)
http://www.wwf.org.au

For information on the Department for Environment and Heritage South Australia and their project work see: http://www.environment.sa.gov.au/

For information on the EarthWatch Institute see: http://www.earthwatch.org. 

For an interesting article on the collection of a Northern Marsupial Mole specimen that appeared in Time magazine see:
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/1998/int/980824/

south_pacific.living_tr31a.html

 

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A spot of bed-time reading maybe?

In addition to the references given in the Fact Sheet:

Baker, L., Woenne-Green, S. and the Mutitjulu Community (1993). Anangu knowledge of vertebrates and the environment. In  J. R. W. Reid, J. A. Kerle and S. R. Morton (Eds) Kowari 4: Uluru Fauna. Pp. 79-132.  ANPWS, Canberra.

Benshemesh, J., Bice, J., and Copley, P. (2000). Marsupial moles and their residual holes: A new method for investigating the distribution and abundance of Notoryctes. (Abstract) Pg. 35. Australian Mammal Society Conference 2000. 

Burbidge, A.A., and Alpin, K.P. (1996). Endangered: Marsupial Moles. Landscape, 11: 34.

Calaby, J.H. (1996). Baldwin Spencer's post-Horn Expedition Collectors in Central Australia. In  S. R. Morton and D. J. Mulvaney (Eds) Exploring Central Australia: society, the environment and the 1894 Horn Expedition. Pp. 188-208.  Surrey Beatty and Sons, Sydney.

Corbett, L.K. (1975). Geographical distribution and habitat of the marsupial mole, Notoryctes typhlops. Australian Mammalogy 1: 375-378.

Howe, D. (1975). Observations of a captive marsupial mole, Notoryctes typhlops. Australian Mammalogy 1: 361-365.

Johnson, K.A. (1995).  Marsupial Mole Notoryctes typhlops. in R. Strahan (ed). The mammals of Australia.  Pp. 409 – 411.  Reed Books, Chatswood.

Johnson, K.A. and Walton, D. W. (1989) Notoryctidae. Chpt 23 in D.W. Walton and B. J. Richardson (eds) Fauna of Australia. Vol 1B Mammalia pp 591-602. Australian Government Printing Service, Canberra.

Pearson, D.J. and Turner, J. (2000). Marsupial moles pop up in the Great Victoria and Gibson Deserts. Australian Mammalogy 22: 115-119.

Spencer, B. (1896). Report on the work of the Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia.  Part I: Introduction, Narrative, Summary of Results and Supplement to Zoological Report. Melville, Mullen and Slade, Melbourne.

Strahan, R. (1995) The Mammals of  Australia. Reed Publishing, Sydney.

Tompson, G., Withers, P., and Seymour, R. (2000). Blind Diggers in the Desert. Nature Australia 26/11: 26-31.

Uppill, K. (2002). The Reclusive Life of the Marsupial Mole. Geo Australasia,  23/4: 9- 11.

Winkel, K. and Humphrey-Smith, I. (1988). Diet of the marsupial mole, Notoryctes typhlops (Stirling 1889) (Marsupialia: Notoryctidae). Australian Mammalogy 11: 159-161.

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Please contact me (Jarrad Holmes) if you have any queries or would like any further information.    If you are interested in participating in a survey as a member of a volunteer group, attending a field day demonstrating these techniques, or would like to be updated on results that we achieve through the Mole Patrol project, please contact me on: jholmes@wwf.org.au or on (08) 8952 1541.

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