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Ooldea Dunnart found on Land for Wildlife Property in Alice Springs

— by Chris Watson

Ooldea Dunnart, Sminthopsis ooldea, from a Land for Wildlife property on Heath Road.

The large population of house mice currently in Alice Springs has been well documented of late, with supermarkets and hardware stores doing a roaring trade in mouse traps. I’ve seen several different models for sale lately, as well as hearing stories of home made devices that work just as well.

All these different inventions have one thing in common. They’re extremely good at catching small mammals – and they don’t distinguish between pests like the house mice and creatures you might find more interesting. They’ll catch anything that’s small and furry and attracted to the bait that’s placed in the trap.

Central Australia has a diversity of small, mouse sized mammals. Some are rodents (rats and mice) and others are marsupials and many are attracted to the same baits you might use in a mouse trap. In fact, when carrying out fauna surveys in the field, we trap small mammals by using a bait of peanut butter and oats, the scent from the peanut butter often proving irresistible for any critters passing by the traps.

Many of the native mammals don’t live in as close a relationship with people as the house mouse. It would certainly be unusual to see any in your kitchen cupboards, let alone catch one! However, in exceptional times, such as that we’re experiencing after such a high rainfall, native mammal populations increase and they are forced into areas they would not normally frequent. This may mean that their distributions expand (such as in the case of the Long Haired Rats you’ve already heard about) or it may cause animals that generally keep to themselves to pop up unexpectedly close to humans.

In the last two weeks, two specimens of small marsupial dunnarts have been handed into us. Both were found in peoples’ backyards here in Alice Springs. One was located dead in a driveway in Eastside and another was found by Uwe Path at Pathdorf Bed & Breakfast on Heath Road. Uwe discovered his specimen in a mouse trap, having been attracted to the bait set for mice. Luckily, Uwe had a close look at the animal and realised what it was.

Ooldea Dunnart, Sminthopsis ooldea.

There are several species of dunnart in central Australia, they’re difficult to distinguish from one another and most are roughly the same size and colour of a mouse. Uwe noticed some differences, however. Particularly the sharp, pointed nose and large ears of the animal and the sharp, pointed teeth made for a mainly carnivorous diet. You can see these features in the photographs.

We’re yet to positively identify Uwe’s animal, but it’s most likely to be an Ooldea Dunnart. Unfortunately, it was killed by the trap. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting record from a suburban garden. So check those traps carefully! Not everything that looks like a mouse is a mouse.

If you find any unusual mammals around your property we’d love to hear about it. In this great season we’re having, all sorts of mammals are showing up that haven’t been seen for some time. If you can preserve the specimen in a snap-lock bag and put it in your freezer it will keep until it can be identified. If you have a camera, try to get some good clear photographs in natural sunlight. Ideally, a profile and front-on shot of the head, a full body shot with something in the frame for scale and a good clear photograph of the soles of the feet can help to clinch the identification of some of the trickier species.