Sandhill dunnart: just add water

Name: Sandhill dunnart (Sminthopsis psammophila)

Size: Length 10-16cm, weight 30-40g

Diet: Primarily insectivorous, including beetles, spiders, centipedes, termites and grasshoppers.

Habitat: Southern arid and semi-arid zones in sandy areas with spinifex and mallee.

Conservation status: Endangered

Superpower: Sandhill dunnarts will enter periods of torpor in severe conditions to conserve water and energy.

Sandhill dunnarts have a ridge of short, stiff black hairs that runs along the underside of their tail – making them easy to distinguish from other dunnart species. They are found in the southern arid and semi-arid zones in sandy areas covered with spinifex and mallee. Their scientific species name means “sand loving”, indicating that they prefer sandy mallee habitat. They usually rest during the day in their burrows under spikey spinifex hummocks where they are protected from predators. They emerge at night to fossick around leaf litter and feed on invertebrates.

Their distribution has declined significantly since European settlement. Sandhill dunnarts are threatened by feral cats and foxes, land clearance, buffel grass and inappropriate fire regimes. Like many arid mammals, they are a boom and bust species: good winter and spring rains lead to high capture rates, while the species disappears to almost undetectable levels during drought.

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Sandhill dunnarts are one of the lesser-known Dasyurids in Australia and their preference for spinifex habitat probably saved them from extinction. Most spinifex habitat was not cleared by Europeans due to the poor soils and low rainfall rendering it unsuitable for agriculture.

Research on captive dunnarts has found they can stand on their back legs and emit a high frequency call which is thought to be a way of communicating with conspecifics.

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