Mulgaras

Last updated: Friday 27 May, 2016

Brush-tailed Mulgara (Dasycercus blythi)
Crest-tailed Mulgara (Dasycercus cristicauda)

A mulgara. Photo Jiri Lochman/Lochman Transparencies.
A mulgara. Photo Jiri Lochman/Lochman Transparencies.
They may be small and furry, but don’t be fooled by their cute appearance – mulgaras are fierce predators, said to suck the brains out of their prey! 

There are two species of mulgara: the Brush-tailed Mulgara and the Crest-tailed Mulgara – known by the Indigenous name Ampurta in the Northern Territory. Both are endemic to (only found in) central Australia.

While they resemble rodents, mulgaras are actually carnivorous marsupials that belong to the Dasyuridae family, along with Tasmanian Devils and quolls.

Professor Glenda Wardle from the University of Sydney's Desert Ecology Research Group with a Crest-tailed Mulgara at Ethabuka. Photo Kate Cranney.
Professor Glenda Wardle from the University of Sydney's Desert Ecology Research Group with a Crest-tailed Mulgara at Ethabuka. Photo Kate Cranney.
Mulgaras have ginger to sandy-coloured fur, helping them camouflage in their desert environment. They have small ears, a short nose and long chubby tails where they store fat.

From head to tail, males can be 30cm long and weigh up to 190g. Females are slightly smaller, but their tails remain roughly one third of their total length.

In 2005 genetic testing confirmed that there are two separate species of Mulgara. They look similar, save for a few features. True to their name, Crest-tailed Mulgaras have a ‘mohawk’ of long black hairs on the end of their tails. Brush-tailed mulgaras’ tails are black and bushy, tapering to a point. They both share a genera name – Dasycercus – which means ‘hairy tail’. 

Where do Mulgaras live?

Mulgaras live in arid central Australia. They create extensive burrow networks in sand dunes and at the base of perennial plants like canegrass and spinifex. Here, 50cm under the soil surface, they hide from the heat of the day. 

Mulgara habitat: Spinifex grasslands on Ethabuka Reserve, Qld. Photo Kate Cranney.
Mulgara habitat: Spinifex grasslands on Ethabuka Reserve, Qld. Photo Kate Cranney.
While they’re mostly nocturnal, on a cold winter’s day you can see Mulgaras just outside of their burrows, soaking in the sun. 

Mostly solitary, mulgara burrows are often close to each other. The Brush-tailed Mulgara’s home range is between 1.4 to 14 ha. 

Given Brush-tailed and Crest-tailed Mulgaras were, until 2005, considered the same species, they’re distributions are uncertain.

It’s thought that the Brush-tailed Mulgara has a more extensive range, across the spinifex grasslands of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory and just into Queensland. For now, the Crest-tailed Mulgara is known to live in a small section of inland Australia. The two species live alongside each other in the Queensland part of the Simpson Desert. 

The IUCN classifies both species as ‘of least concern’, but under federal legislation, the Crest-tailed Mulgara is Vulnerable to extinction. Both species suffered major population declines in the 1930s – Crest-tailed Mulgaras are now extinct in NSW due to predation by feral cats and foxes, degradation of habitat by camels and rabbits, and unmanaged wildfire.

Mulgara behaviour

Mulgaras are perfectly suited to desert living. Amazingly, they don’t have to drink water! They can get all the moisture they need from their food – small and juicy mammals, reptiles, centipedes, spiders and other large invertebrates. 

They’re important predators in arid Australia, but have also been observed eating fruits and seeds. After digesting their fare, their highly-developed kidneys excrete a concentrated urine, which, like their dry faecal pellets, limits water loss. 

They’re terrestrial but can also climb. They have keen senses of sight, hearing and smell, and escape predators by running down their burrows.

Mulgaras breed during winter. As marsupials, the females raise the young in pouches. Each year females give birth to one litter, with up to six (Brush-tailed Mulgara) or eight (Crest-tailed Mulgara) young in each brood. 

The mulgara’s pouch is a simplified skin fold, so the young hang from the mother’s body, and are fully weaned at four months old. While pregnant, female mulgaras can spend 3 to 12 hours a day in an energy-saving state of reduced activity, or torpor. 

Mulgara populations go through ‘boom and bust’ cycles, depending on rainfall and the availability of food. Mulgaras are relatively long-lived – unlike other dasyruids, they don’t die after breeding. 

In the wild Brush-tailed Mulgaras have a maximum lifespan of three years, but can live to five years in captivity. 

Threats

It’s likely that feral cat and fox predation has, in part, caused declines in Mulgara populations. Overgrazing by introduced herbivores – cattle, rabbits and camels – has adversely affected their habitat, destroying dunes and reducing the cover of plant species they burrow underneath. 

Changed fire regimes have also altered the composition of the vegetation and the abundance of food. Climate change is likely to increase mean temperatures and decrease rainfall. Overall, more research is required to understand the main drivers of mulgara declines. 

What’s Bush Heritage doing?

We’re proud to have Brush-tailed Mulgaras on Birriliburru Indigenous Protected Area, Crest-tailed Mulgaras on Cravens Peak and possibly both species at Ethabuka in Queensland. 

We work with the Traditional Owners of Birriliburru to control cat and fox numbers, and to reinstate traditional fire regimes, including the use of patch-burning, which helps to reduce the risk of wildfires. 

On Cravens Peak and Ethabuka we protect Mulgara habitat by controlling feral animals (removing cattle and feral herbivores and controlling feral predators) and carefully managing fire to maintain good ground cover.

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