Name(s): Pookila (Pseudomys novaehollandiae), New Holland mouse
Size: Length: 65-88mm, plus 81-107mm tail. Weight: 12-28g
Diet: Omnivorous, including seeds, leaves, fungi, invertebrates
Habitat: Patchily distributed in mostly coastal habitats from Victoria to south-east Queensland, plus northeast Tasmania and Flinders Island.
Conservation status: Endangered
Superpower: Pookilas are micro engineers – despite their small size, they can create intricate burrow systems in sandy soils in which they nest during the day, raise their young, and stay safe during fire.
At first, convincing people to love native mice can be a hard sell. Say “mouse” and people conjure images of their homes being invaded by stinky little pests and farmers battling wriggling carpets of grain-eaters. Invasive rodents in Australia have fought their way to the front of our minds and left little space for the nearly 70 remarkable and unique species of native rats and mice that were shaped by the Australian continent. Far from the tenacious and invasive house mice and black rats that people deal with regularly, most of our native rodents are a sensitive and delicate bunch. And we’ve already lost 13 species to extinction.
The mouse I’m here to spruik doesn’t smell at all, it will never turn up in your home, and if it was good enough at breeding to hit plague proportions, my job wouldn’t need to exist.
The pookila (aka the New Holland mouse) is a small native rodent species found in mostly heathy coastal vegetation in south-eastern Australia. As much as it pains me to use the house mouse as a point of reference, pookilas are a similar size but readily distinguished by their sandy brown fur, larger eyes, gorgeous bicoloured tails (white/pink underneath, grey-brown on top), no stench, and are overall much fluffier and sweeter.
In Victoria, we’ve lost them from seven out of 12 historical locations, leaving a disjointed distribution of genetically isolated and vulnerable mice. On top of habitat loss and fragmentation, they are highly susceptible to predation by cats and foxes, and food shortages during drought.
This year, I began collecting individuals for a Victorian captive breeding and reintroduction program based at Melbourne Zoo and Moonlit Sanctuary. It’s not a choice we made lightly – my heart breaks every time I take one from the wild – but it’s a necessary step in saving the pookila in Victoria. We need more mice, and we need them to be genetically diverse. For example, the pookila dating pool at Wilsons Promontory is so limited that even if a mouse picked the most distantly related partner possible, they would still be more closely related than normal full siblings. We’re matching couples from different populations so we can release their genetically healthier offspring back out into the wild to improve diversity.
Why fight so hard to save a species? Aside from their role contributing to healthy ecosystems through soil turnover and seed and fungal spore dispersal (plus our fundamental responsibility to not push species to extinction), pookilas are just genuinely really lovely. Their unique personalities still amaze me, even after eight years and a thousand interactions. Now that we have some in captivity with cameras monitoring them 24/7, their individualities are even more astounding. There are inquisitive ones and nervous ones, early risers and late sleepers, fastidious decorators and industrious diggers; some choose to sleep in nest boxes, others dig their own burrows or create cosy leaf-lined bark caves.
The pookila may seem like an unassuming choice for Australian Mammal of the Year, but that’s just because you haven’t met a feisty one yet.
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Originally published by Cosmos as Pookila: these masterful mice are micro engineers
Dr Phoebe Burns is Zoos Victoria’s Native Rodent Biologist and Chair of the National Pookila (New Holland mouse) and Smoky Mouse Recovery Teams.
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