The Crest-tailed mulgara is alive!!

February 10, 2019 • 12:45 pm

Yes, today we have a species long thought to be extinct, that, like Lazarus, has returned from the dead. It’s the Crest-tailed Mulgara (Dasycercus cristicauda), a small carnivorous marsupial that was thought for more than a century to be extinct, and whose existence was based on bone fragments. As Roaring Earth and the University of New South Wales report, recently one female was found in the desert of central Australia. And where there’s one, there’s more:

From the UNSW report:

A crest-tailed mulgara — thought to be extinct for more than 100 years — was recently found burrowing through the sand dunes of New South Wales.

Known previously only through fossilized remnants, the animal is one of two species of mulgara found throughout Central Australia. These marsupials have crested bushy tails, measure up to a foot in length, and boast sandy-blonde fur.

. . . A team from the UNSW Sydney’s Wild Deserts project made the unexpected discovery during recent scientific monitoring.

UNSW scientist and Wild Deserts ecologist Dr Rebecca West says it is particularly exciting to find a Crest-tailed Mulgara alive for the first time in NSW.

“The Crest-tailed Mulgara was once widely distributed across sandy desert environments in inland Australia, but declined due to the effects of rabbits, cats and foxes,” West says.

“The species weighs around 150 grams and has pale blonde fur and a thick tail with a distinctive black crest.”

The discovery comes at a great time, according to UNSW scientist and Wild Deserts project co-ordinator Reece Pedler.

“Next year we are due to begin introduced predator and rabbit eradication from a large area, which will no doubt help the Mulgara,” Pedler says.

From Roaring Earth, which makes a mistake in the first line (they mean “near extinction”):

The mulgaras were originally driven to extinction due to the introduction of invasive species including cats, foxes, and rabbits, all of which have European origins. Their return to existence in this specific area could be indicative of a natural decline in rabbit and invasive predator populations.

The recently spotted mulgara was found by researchers from the Wild Deserts project on a scientific monitoring trip in Sturt National Park, located just north-west of Tibooburra. Researchers identified the animal as a young female before releasing it back into the wild, hopeful for its reproduction.

Wild Deserts aims to reintroduce locally extinct mammal species back into their native habitats, which also involves removing some invasive species like rabbits, feral cats, and foxes. The greater bilby, burrowing betong, Western quoll, and Western barred bandicoot are the project’s primary focus, but they will now keep their eyes peeled for mulgara tracks as well.

Here are some photos of the rediscovered one:


Photo: Reece Pedler
Photo: Katherine Moseby

And a video:

Now what confuses me here is that there’s a Wikipedia page on the species, not mentioning its rediscovery, giving a range map, implying that there are a fair number of these things, and showing the picture below. They do say that there are two species in the genus, the other being the brush-tailed mulgara, but this one is clearly identified as the “crest-tailed mulgara”. Nor is the brush-tailed mulgara described as having nearly gone extinct.

Photo credit: Bobby Tamayo, Simpson Desert, QLD.

Perhaps Wikipedia has gone badly wrong here, in which case we have another examples for Greg Mayer’s long-promised “What’s the matter with Wikipedia?” post.

Readers are welcome to clarify this conundrum.

h/t: Kiera

14 thoughts on “The Crest-tailed mulgara is alive!!

  1. The discovery is dated December 2017. The Wikipedia article history shows a flurry of activity in December 2017, and another flurry in June 2018, “including description, Taxonomy, Ecology, conservation status, threats” and “added temporal range to taxobox.”

    The page does mention that “The mulgara was presumed extirpated in New South Wales for more than a century, but was re-discovered in 2017 in Sturt National Park north-west of Tibooburra.

    It seems to me that Wikipedia is doing okay on this one.

  2. “Their return to existence in this specific area”

    Another small error.

    They certainly never ceased to exist. They just persisted in a patch of favorable habitat and were discovered there.

    1. Hmm. Article has a lot of problems. The Mulgara was never extinct at all, but just (thought to be) locally extirpated.

  3. I’ve been toying around with an idea I call a virtual extinction (I made the name up while reading “The Universe in a Nutshell”). Basically, at a certain point, the species is more or less doomed to die. We can keep it around for a while, but it’s really only a stop-gap measure; even if the species were to survive, the genetic bottleneck would be horrendous and the likelyhood if it surviving for long without being domesticated/adopted as a pet is nil.

    A tortoise species with only one surviving male member, for example, can be treated as extinct for all practical purposes. Even a breeding pair is unlikely to succeed.

    A related concept is….I don’t have a name for it. Ecological extinction? Anyway, the idea is that the species becomes so rare that it basically ceases to have any ecological significance. Quite obviously if all members of a species are in captivity this applies. I’ve wondered if the California Condor fits this–there are so few of them that they can’t be said to play a significant role in the ecosystem. That said, this is a really hard line to draw. Most species are rare in a community, after all, and “rare” and “impact” do not necessarily correlate. It doesn’t take many Tyrannosaurus rex specimens to significantly alter a community!

    Anyway, whenever I hear of a species being re-discovered I wonder about how it fits these two concepts. I mean, yes, I”m excited that the species is still around–but I also wonder, essentially, if the discovery is going to amount to little more than a brief curiosity.

    I have long said that nothing makes you as cynical as working in the environmental industry.

  4. Species that are reduced to a very few can still recover with protection. A number of examples of that exist. Organisms produce excess offspring and populations can grow substantially if conditions permit, even starting from a low base line. Sea otters, elephant seals, fur seals, are examples. As long as a few exist, there’s hope.

    1. This re-emergence of the crest-tailed mulgara makes me so happy! We always hope, but generally in vain. Next the thylacine! We’re still hoping.

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