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.
The Natural heritage Trust
The National Parks and Wildlife S.A.
Threatened Species Network
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
C/o Threatened Species Network
PO Box 2796
Alice Springs N.T 0870
Telephone (08) 8952
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
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.
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!
Marsupial Mole Extension Officer
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
National EPBC Act: Endangered
Scientific Name for the Southern
Yitjarritjarri, Purrtjapa (Pintupi, Luritja)
for the Northern Marsupial Mole:
Kakarratul (Pintupi, Luritja)
Threatened Species Network NT
Ph. (08) 8952 1541
Yankunytjatjara Council Land Management
Ph. (08) 8954 8173
Dept. Environment & Heritage SA
Ph. (08) 8204 8781
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How Can I Help in the Conservation of Itjaritjari?
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).
NOT DISTURB OR CAPTURE LIVE MOLES.
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,
Johnson, K. (1991) The mole who comes in from the
sun. pp 8-9 Wildlife
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
Incidental Track Sightings
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.
will I recognize Itjaritjari sign?
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.
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
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
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
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
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 .
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Walalkara Indigenous Protected Area
Ranger Robin Kankanpakantja is listening to the
sound of an Itjaritjari burrowing through the
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.
Can I Find Some More Information About
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.
If you would like
to read the Environment Australia fact sheet on
Marsupial Moles see:
information about Environment Australia and the
Natural Heritage Trust see:
To learn about the
Threatened Species Network and other projects
currently underway see: (Marsupial Mole Fact Sheet
soon to be added to this site)
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:
For an interesting
article on the collection of a Northern Marsupial
Mole specimen that appeared in Time magazine see:
Back to top
A spot of
bed-time reading maybe?
In addition to the references given in the Fact
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,
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,
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:
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:
(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
Uppill, K. (2002). The Reclusive Life of the
Marsupial Mole. Geo Australasia, 23/4:
Winkel, K. and Humphrey-Smith, I. (1988). Diet of
the marsupial mole, Notoryctes typhlops (Stirling
1889) (Marsupialia: Notoryctidae). Australian
Mammalogy 11: 159-161.
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:
firstname.lastname@example.org or on
(08) 8952 1541.