The miraculous stories of 3 Australian mammals, “lost-and-then-re-found”, that have received a “second chance from extinction”.
Largely due to its isolation (as an island that has evolved on its own for many millions of years), Australia has exceptionally unique biodiversity, about 80 % of which is found no where else in the world. While on one hand, that’s a really wonderful thing: we have a diverse and exciting fauna here in Australia, it’s part of our natural heritage and something we can be really proud of. However, on the other hand, it means there is no “back up”, and when we lose species from Australia, most of the time it’s forever – and we can’t get them back.
Unfortunately, a third of the world’s mammal extinctions from the past 200 years have occurred in Australia: a total of 32 unique, furry species lost forever. Although you might be thinking, “this is a truly depressing topic to write about, I thought you wrote good news stories for the planet”. And you would be right! Today we will be diving into 3 miracle stories of Australia’s mammals: thought to be lost forever but rediscovered after many years of being “missing in action”.
Today we will share the story of the Gould’s Mouse (Pseudomys fieldii), rediscovered in 2021 thanks to genetic analysis after a century missing; the Gilbert’s Potoroo (Potorous gilbertii), rediscovered in 1994 when it was accidentally caught in a trap by a research student, after it was absent for 115 years; and the Bridled Nail-tail Wallaby (Onychogalea fraenata), rediscovered in 1973 by a fencing contractor who recognised them from a magazine article that suggested they had been extinct since 1937.
If these “mammalian heroes” hadn’t hung on in the shadows for many years, our current “mammal extinction toll” here in Australia would be 35 species lost. So, I guess what I’m trying to say here is it certainly could be much worse.
- Gould’s Mouse
The most recent of these three miracle stories is that of the Gould’s Mouse (Pseudomys fieldii), a small, fluffy, generic-looking native rodent that most recently came “back from the dead”. We wrote about it as the first one of 10 amazing wins for Australian wildlife in 2021 the other week. This is because in mid-2021, a surprising twist of events changed what we thought to be true about it…
Genetic analysis by the Museum Victoria found the long-thought-extinct Gould’s Mouse (Pseudomys gouldii), a small mouse that was thought to have disappeared forever over a century ago, was actually still alive and kicking in small remnant populations – under a different alias, the “Djoongari” or “Shark Bay Mouse”.
Now it’s not all good news – the mouse used to range right the way across most of southern and central Australia and has largely disappeared from most of this former distribution which is why it was believed extinct for so long. The remaining pocket of Djoongari is a threatened species, classified by the Australian federal government as Vulnerable to extinction.
So, although it certainly isn’t out of the clear, it isn’t often that species get a second chance from extinction in today’s day and age – which makes it a very exciting story!
2. Gilbert’s Potoroo
The Gilbert’s Potoroo is a small, shy, truffle-specialist known only from a small area of south Western Australia. In December 1994, research student Elizabeth Sinclair was studying the elusive population of mainland Quokka (Setonix brachyurus) by intensively trapping in dense bushland on the south coast.
Although she was unsuccessful at catching her target species, she managed to find not just one but TWO Gilbert’s Potoroo sitting in her cage traps when she came to check them. The first one she wrote off as a “funny-looking bandicoot” and released it without too much fuss. The second time a similar-looking animal caused her to alert her supervisors, and boom! After 115 years without sightings, the Gilbert’s Potoroo was confirmed alive and kicking. Very exciting indeed.
Since this rediscovery, the population was estimated to be extremely small but stable with about 40 individuals – some of whom have been moved to nearby predator-free islands and a captive breeding program has been trialed, all with the aim of improving the fate of Australia’s rarest marsupial mammals.
3. Bridled Nail-tail Wallaby
The Bridled Nail-tail Wallaby has perhaps one of the more bizarre stories of Australian mammal re-discoveries. It was 1973 and a fencing contractor working on a station in mid-Queensland was enjoying his lunch break. As he munched his sandwich, he read through the magazine article it had been wrapped in – a feature from “Woman’s Day” with illustrations of Australia’s extinct species. One of the wallaby images caught his eye – as he was sure he’d seen them knocking about the area he’d been fencing.
Going off his gut instinct, he reported his suspicion, and after research experts came out to verify the sighting, the re-discovery of the Bridled Nail-tail Wallaby was announced. It hadn’t been seen since 1937, missing in action for 36 years.
Immediate action was taken by the Queensland government to convert Taunton Cattle Station into Taunton National Park in order to protect this remnant population of threatened wallabies. A small number of wallabies were also reintroduced into Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s predator-proof fenced sanctuary, Scotia, in western New South Wales where their numbers have risen without the threat of feral cat and fox predation. This insurance population is a very important conservation measure for protecting the Bridled Nail-tail Wallaby into what has become a much brighter future for the species.
In conclusion to this article, we should mention that these three mammal species we have featured aren’t the only ones that have been rediscovered some years after being declared extinct. That’s right – the Dibbler (Parantechinus apicalis), the Desert Rat-Kangaroo (Caloprymnus campestris), the Leadbeater’s Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) – to name a few have all been “lost-and-then-found” after lengthy periods of time.
The possibility of uncovering another species thought to be lost to extinction is an exciting prospect when surveying biodiversity or working in remote parts of the country. However, while exciting it can also be unfortunate that many of these species remain in critically low numbers in very small parts of their former range and continue to be at risk of “re-extinction”. This is because the same threats that initially caused their decline and presumed extinction continue to affect them.
Intervention by immediate and bold conservation action is critical following species rediscoveries to mitigate the threats that face them and fully capitalize on the “second chance” we are given to protect our natural capital.
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