Marsupial moles: everything’s better underground

Name(s): Kakarratul (Notoryctes caurinus) and itjaritjari (Notoryctes typhlops). The word for kakarratul, also known as the northern marsupial mole, is based on the name for this species in the Martu Wangka, Manytjilytjarra, Ngaatjatjarra, Nyangumarta, Pintupi, Putijarra, and Warnman languages. Itjaritjari, or southern marsupial mole, comes from the Luritja, Ngaatjatjara, Pintupi, Pitjantjatjara, and Yankunytjara languages.

Size: Length 120-150 mm, weight 40-70g  

Diet: Primarily insectivorous 

Habitat/range: Sandy arid regions of Western and Central Australia 

Conservation status: Not listed (kakarratul), vulnerable in the Northern Territory (itjaritjari)

Superpower: Marsupial moles spend their lives hidden underground digging through sand! 

Photograph of a small furry golden mole among brown autumn leaves
A golden mole photographed in South Africa. Credit: suncana / iNaturalist via Wikimedia Commons.

Marsupial moles are definitely the most special of Australian mammals.

About the size of a chocolate bar (and blind as one too), and covered with silky, cream-coloured fur, marsupial moles have no eyes or external ears. They’re the only marsupials that spend their entire lives underground, literally swimming through the sand of Australia’s arid deserts.

Their limbs are short and powerfully muscled – especially their arms, which have enormously enlarged claws that look almost like fins. These claws function as shovels, while the back legs help push their short, stocky body through the sand. They also have a short but strong tail, covered in tough skin that helps to anchor the body as they’re digging. Their nose is covered by a shield of tough skin to stop sand getting up their nostrils as they move through the sand.

While most ‘moles’ dig permanent burrow systems, soft sand fills in behind marsupial moles as they move through the earth.

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In their appearance and behaviour they’re most like the golden moles of Africa, especially the Namib Desert golden mole, but their nearest relatives are marsupials, including bandicoots, numbats and Tasmanian devils. The southern species, itjaritjari, is a little bit larger in body size, with a larger and more rectangular nose shield than the northern species, kakarratul. Marsupial moles have small peg-like teeth, and we think they eat mostly invertebrates such as ants, termites and beetle larvae (grubs).

Like all marsupials, they give birth to very tiny young and have a pouch to suckle their babies with milk – and other digging marsupials, the pouch opens backwards to protect the babies from sand getting in.  

Because marsupial moles live underground, they are rarely encountered by people, though they seem to come to the surface after rain. Living underground makes these marsupials difficult to study and difficult to establish their population sizes. However, it is known that foxes and cats prey on marsupial moles, and the itjaritjari is considered vulnerable in the Northern Territory.

They’re precious, rare and quite extraordinary, and that’s why I think Notoryctes should be number one.

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