Pookila: these masterful mice are micro engineers

Name(s): New Holland mouse (Pseudomys novaehollandiae), also known as pookila.

Size: Length: 65-88mm, plus 81-107mm tail. Weight: 12-28g

Diet: Omnivorous, including seeds, flower, fruits, 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.

Pookila. Credit: Tim Bawden

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 reclusive bunch. And we’ve already lost 13 species to extinction.

Nominations for 2023 Australian Mammal of the Year are now open!

Visit our voting page here to learn more about the categories and to vote for your picks for Australian Mammal of the Year.

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.

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Pookila. Credit: Zoos Victoria

A year ago, we began the next stage in our mission to recover the Pookila in Victoria and established the Victorian Pookila Conservation Breeding Program at Melbourne Zoo and Moonlit Sanctuary. We need more mice, and we need them to be genetically diverse. We’re matching couples from different populations so we can release their genetically healthier offspring back out into the wild to improve diversity. The founders have settled into their new lives incredibly well and, judging by how affectionate some pairings are, they’re pretty pleased with our matchmaking efforts. So far, seven gorgeous couples have produced 38 precious healthy mouse pups, ready to help recover their species in the wild.

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 nine years and a thousand interactions. The individualities we get to see in the breeding program are even more astounding. Affectionate parents produce kids who are extra affectionate (think snuggly mice nestling together); some mums-to-be do hectic last-minute renovations to their burrows a day or two before giving birth; and one guy (poor Graeme), although a successful dad, is afraid of female mice.

Everyone should have the joy of knowing and loving pookilas. Please help a tiny mouse to finally be seen by voting pookila in Australian Mammal of the Year.

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