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: the Brush-tailed Mulgara (Dasycercus blythi) and the Crest-tailed Mulgara (Dasycercus cristicauda) – 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.
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, which appear similar except 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.
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.
The Crest-tailed Mulgara is known to live in a small section of inland Australia, though in 2017 it was also rediscovered in Sturt National Park, NSW, after a century-long absence. The two species live alongside each other in the Queensland part of the Simpson Desert.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the Brush-tailed Mulgara as ‘of least concern’, but the Crest-tailed Mulgara is 'Near Threatened' and under federal legislation is classified Vulnerable to extinction. Both species suffered major population declines in the 1930s.
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.
Mulgaras are terrestrial but can also climb. They have keen senses of sight, hearing and smell, and escape predators by running into 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 in captivity.
Threats to mulgaras
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 in the 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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