Musky rat-kangaroo: hyp, hyp, hypsies!

Name: Musky rat-kangaroo (Hypsiprymnodon moschatus) (moschatus, meaning musky smelling). The local Aboriginal name for the species is durrgim yuri.

Size: Total length of the head and body is 155 to 270 mm, with the tail measuring from 125 to 160mm. Weight ranges from 360 to 680g.

Diet: Mostly a fruit eater.

Habitat/range: Rainforests of north-east Queensland.

Conservation status: Least concern

Superpower: Emits a distinct musky odour used for communication and territory marking.

A musky rat-kangaroo eating something
Musky rat-kangaroo © Kevin Schafer, some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Recently, I was lucky enough to be in far north Queensland on zo-oliday (as zoologists do). On a late afternoon walk around Lake Barrine, one of our party whispered, “Mum! musky rat-kangaroo!”

I was excited beyond measure and spent the next while catching the tiniest glimpses of the mammal through the dim rainforest, marveling at the presence of a living fossil in our midst. My patience was rewarded the next morning with THREE ‘hypsies’ just outside our lodgings.

They are pretty looking things, and difficult to describe. With a sturdy and compact body, measuring around 20 to 30 centimetres long, first impressions are a bit bandicoot-y, but with reddish-brown fur, a cheeky face reminiscent of their bettong cousins, and a long black ratty tail.

Musky rat-kangaroo on dusty ground
Musky rat-kangaroo © Rich Kostecke, some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)

But why was I so excited? Well, the musky rat-kangaroo is a tiny and mysterious marsupial found in the rainforests of north-eastern Queensland and New Guinea. It’s the smallest and most ancient living member of the extended kangaroo family and has some fascinating traits.

Unlike the kangaroos, bettongs and potoroos that evolved later, musky rat-kangaroos have five toes on their foot, rather than four. Its hind legs enable it to hop for a quick getaway, but it generally moves with a more four-legged style compared to its larger kangaroo cousins.

One of the standout features of the musky rat kangaroo is its handy prehensile tail. This tail acts as a balancing tool, but also as a means to carry around brush and twigs for nesting material.

This unusual combination of features tells us the story of the evolution of kangaroos from the tree-climbing, possum-like ancestors. As a “living fossil”, musky rat-kangaroos haven’t really changed much over the past 20 million years! This makes them one of the oldest living marsupials.

Voting for Australian Mammal of the Year 2023 is now open!

More information about the voting process can be found here.

True to its name, the musky rat-kangaroo emits a powerful musky scent from scent glands on its throat and chest. This distinct odour is used for communication and marking its territory in the wild.

When it comes to food, this species is mostly a fruit eater, munching on fallen fruits, seeds, and vegetation found on the forest floor. Its teeth and stomach are well suited for eating fruit. It uses its specialised front paws to grab and handle its meals, showcasing some nimble dining skills.

Though they are active during the day, most often morning and late afternoon, encounters with the musky rat-kangaroo are quite rare due to its secretive nature and love for dense forests.

Like many rainforest dwellers, the musky rat-kangaroo faces challenges from habitat loss caused by human activities.

Give a vote to the hypsies – ancient sentinels of the rainforests!

Musky rat-kangaroo.
Musky rat-kangaroo. © Kym Nicolson, some rights reserved (CCBY)

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