Spectacled hare-wallaby: a real spectacle to behold… if you can spot them!

Name: Spectacled hare-wallaby (Lagorchestes conspicillatus)

Size: Weight: between 3.3 and 4.8kg (males) and 2.1 to 4.3kg (females). The head-body length is around 9.2-50 cm (females) and 41-49 cm (males). 

Diet: Herbivore that selectively consumes the leaves of around 24 species of grasses, shrubs, and forbs (herbs).

Habitat/Range: Northern Australia, extending from Western Australia (including Barrow Island) through to Queensland.

Conservation status: IUCN Least Concern. Barrow Island population listed as Vulnerable.

Superpower/fun fact: The most efficient kidneys and the lowest rate of water turnover of any mammal in the world! This means they do not require access to any free water even in temperatures exceeding 40°C!

Night-time photograph of two spectacled hare-wallabies
Spectacled hare-wallabies. Credit: Jimmy Lamb

The elusive spectacled hare-wallaby is a small and stocky macropod, suitably named after the rufous rings around its eyes resembling a pair of spectacles. But don’t be deceived by their unique and charming appearance, this tough little species has managed to survive in the face of various pressures, leaving them the last surviving member of their genus (Lagorchestes) still wild on the mainland. But how is this possible? How has a species – facing the constant threats of habitat destruction and predation from feral cats and foxes – managed to survive while almost all other similar species (central hare-wallaby, desert bandicoot, crescent nailtail wallaby) have perished in those areas?

Despite this fascinating phenomenon, the spectacled hare-wallaby has rarely been studied nor received any spotlight, making it an underdog when competing for awareness from more well-known macropods, such as its closest relative, the rufous hare-wallaby or even the iconic quokka. So, what do we know about the species? Well, for one, it is extremely cryptic, so much so that it is rarely seen in the wild and was thought to be extinct in Broome, WA, for 13 years (2004 to 2017) before it was rediscovered. Additionally, they are one of the hardiest mammals when it comes to surviving in arid regions because of their ability to survive without access to any free water, despite temperatures reaching well over 40°C.

Spectacled hare-wallaby
Spectacled hare-wallaby. Credit: Jimmy Lamb

But neither of these traits can explain how they’ve managed to overcome numerous other threats, leaving more questions than answers about the species. To add another mystery to the list, in 1997 a single specimen was recorded in Papua New Guinea, raising questions on whether there could be an additional population and potentially another subspecies. However, since then, no further evidence has been discovered.

The species’ survival rates may not be as promising as currently believed. Perhaps they have been largely overlooked due to their apparent “widespread distribution”, while their cryptic nature has resulted in the dismissal of their low detection rates. It has even been speculated that the species may be nearly extinct in some parts of WA, especially in the Pilbara, with almost no sightings since 1990. Considering the last study on their distribution was done in 1991 (32 years ago!), more recent research is needed. Nevertheless, the species has still managed to survive much longer than most, with their numbers potentially being steadier in parts of the Northern Territory and Queensland.

Spectacled hare-wallaby
Spectacled hare-wallaby. Credit: Jimmy Lamb

Could they be hiding some valuable insights about survival that can assist in the conservation of rarer species? Whatever the reason, this is one mysterious species that definitely deserves more attention, and what better way for them to be acknowledged than to be crowned Australia’s Mammal of the Year?

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