Just deserts: some like it hot – which arid mammal has your support?

I love a sunburnt country…

Australia is, at its core, an arid land. We live on the driest inhabited continent. We wear thongs and singlets at Christmas. “No hat, no play” is our national gospel, burnt into our brains from a young age, or into the skin of those who forget their hat!

Yet despite living in the land of drought and flooding rains, the arid and semi-arid zones of Australia remain “out of sight, out of mind” for most Australians. Despite covering over 70% of the landmass, the arid interior – the famous “Outback” – remains largely hidden from the public. Sure, everyone wants to visit Uluru someday, and a lot of people seem to read the Betoota Advocate for their daily news, but what else is there? It’s just not worth the visit.

A photograph of outback red, sandy desert with grassland vegetation.
Spinifex grassland, Simpson Desert. Credit: Christopher Dickman

Their loss!

Often thought of as barren wastelands inhospitable to life, the arid and semi-arid deserts are in fact home to a vast array of unique and interesting plants, animals, and landscapes. From the picturesque rolling red sand dunes of the Simpson Desert to the empty, seemingly endless gibber plains of the Stony Desert rangelands, life is everywhere… if you know where to look!

Photograph of an arid outback landscape
West Macdonnell Ranges, NT. Credit: Christopher Dickman

However, in the more extreme environments, looking isn’t always the best strategy. Just ask the functionally blind marsupial moles – the kakarratul and the itjaritjari. These subterranean specialists – also known as the northern marsupial mole (Notoryctes caurinus) and the southern marsupial mole (Notoryctes typhlops) – have perfected the art of avoiding the heat by going… swimming? These truly weird critters spend almost their entire lives underground, “swimming” through the sand to hunt insects and larvae. It’s certainly an effective way to avoid the heat, but it’s not for everyone!

Photograph of a kowari, standing on red, rocky earth
Kowari. Credit: Tali Moyle

For the many species that choose to do their hunting above ground, water is the name of the game. Find it and keep it. Extremely large home ranges (comparative to body sizes) allow some species to access small local rainfalls and associated productivity, while highly concentrated urine allows others to retain as much of their precious water as possible. Some species, such as the kowari (Dasyuroides brynei), use both strategies. As a result, the kowari doesn’t need to drink water at all! It’s able to get all its moisture intake through its largely insectivorous diet. Some hopping mice (Notomys species) take this a step further and can produce milk and rear young on a diet of only dry seeds, all thanks to one simple trick: they consume the faeces of those young to reintroduce the water into their diet! In a tough (water) economy, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

A photograph of a spinifex hopping mouse on red sand
Spinifex hopping mouse. Credit: Aaron Greenville

Even the country’s most iconic animal, the big red variety of kangaroo (Osphranter rufus), is a product of the desert. Their adaptations include absorbent intestines to preserve water and the ability to pause the growth of an embryo until external conditions improve. Behavioural adaptations such as panting, licking their chests and arms to cool down, and seeking shade during extreme temperatures are also important survival tactics for this famous Australian.

Photograph of a red kangaroo
Red kangaroo. Credit: Jami Tarris/Getty Images

It’s a tough life in the desert, and water isn’t the only thing that native mammals have to worry about. Pastoral leases dominate large parts of the Red Centre and cause numerous issues for native species, while introduced predators make each night a fight for survival. So sure, if you’re a dasyurid you might need to dodge a feral cat or two, but it’s worth it for that view of the stars!

Vote for theaustralian mammal of the year 2023

The nominees are:

Brush-tailed bettong (Bettongia penicillata ogilbyi), south-west WA

Also known as the woylie, an individual can turn over approximately 5 tonnes of soil per year.

Burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur), islands off WA and reintroduced populations in SA, NSW, WA, and the NT.

Also known as boodies, burrowing bettongs make fart-like vocalisations to communicate with each other.

Crest-tailed mulgara (Dasycercus cristicauda), central Australia.

They have long, chubby tails, with a mohowk of long black hairs on the end, in which they store fat.

Fat-tailed dunnart (Sminthopsis crassicaudata), NSW, SA, QLD, WA, and the NT.

They don’t have to drink water and can get all the moisture they need through their prey.

Greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis), patchy populations in parts of the Tanami, Great Sandy and Gibson Deserts and the Kimberley and Pilbara regions, with small populations in south-west QLD.

They are the only (living) desert-dwelling animal known to expose and rip open plant roots in search of larvae (a well-known example being witchetty grubs).

Greater stick-nest rat (Leporillus conditor), reintroduced to offshore islands and fenced reserves

They use their sticky urine (called “amberat”) to glue their nests together. The amberat is so strong the nests can last for thousands of years when sheltered from the elements under rock overhangs or caves.

Kultarr (Antechinomys laniger), arid Australia including NSW, QLD, WA, SA, and the NT.

Often mistaken for hopping mice, kultarr actually don’t hop at all. Instead, they gallop on all four legs at speeds of up to 13.8km/h.

Red kangaroo (Osphranter rufus), arid and semi-arid mainland Australia.

Australia’s largest native terrestrial land mammal, the largest extant marsupial, and the only kangaroo truly restricted to Australia’s arid interior.

Red-tailed phascogale (Phascogale calura), the southern WA wheatbelt

The name translates to “beautiful-tailed pouch-weasel”, these acrobatic mammals make death-defying jumps of up to 2m between trees.

Southern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons), southern semi-arid regions of SA and south-east WA

Their warrens can be more than 100 years old, and are passed down through generations.

Southern marsupial mole (Notoryctes typhlops), sandy arid regions of Western and Central Australia 

They’re the only marsupials that spend their entire lives underground, literally swimming through the sand of Australia’s arid deserts.

Yellow-footed rock-wallaby (Petrogale xanthopus), patchy distribution in semi-arid SA, NSW, and QLD. 

Their ears are much larger than those of other rock-wallaby species, an adaptation for heat dispersal.

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