Woman stumbles upon 'hardest animal to find' in Australia after outback highway stop

Only around five people are fortunate to see a marsupial mole each decade. So the footage captured last month is extremely rare.

Left: The Outback desert highway west of Curtin Springs where the marsupial mole was seen. Right - A close-up picture of the marsupial mole that Merrin saw.
A rarely seen marsupial mole was discovered burrowing into desert sands in June. Source: Merrin/Supplied

One of Australia's most rarely seen creatures has been filmed burrowing into red desert sands at the edge of an outback highway. The woman who spotted it has shared her excitement with Yahoo News.

When she stopped her car, Merrin knew she couldn’t stay long because the roads become dangerous after dark due to the many marauding feral camels in the area. But because the landscape was so spectacular, she decided to have a break and see what animals she could find.

“It’s always interesting to see what comes up with creatures on the road. Usually just thorny devils, or blue tongues,” she said.

Instead, what Merrin discovered was a frisky white southern marsupial mole, furiously digging into the ground to escape her. If you look closely you'll notice two ants clinging to its back — they likely climbed aboard after the tiny creature raided their nest for a feed.

Marsupial moles are animals that ecologists can spend their whole lives trying to find. Most never see one in real life.

Joey Clarke from Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) told Yahoo there are only five to 10 sightings per decade.

“One of the reasons we don’t see them is there aren’t big populations of people out there to see them. But their unique lifestyle, where almost their whole life is spent underground, is another,” he said.

“They’re unreservedly one of the hardest animals to find. People who have worked in the desert for decades haven’t seen one.

“Usually people just stumble across them in the cooler months, when they come up to the surface after rain.”

Merrin was instantly aware of the significance of her marsupial mole sighting. During her 36-second video of the animal, you can hear her breathing heavily with excitement.

“I don’t think I’ll ever see another one,” she told Yahoo.

She originally encountered the animal on June 20, around 50 km from the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, west of Curtin Springs, in Australia's Red Centre. After she shared the video of the burrowing animal with friends on social media this week, there was instant excitement.

“OMG, I have spent my days looking for it and you just come across it,” one person exclaimed. “You beat me, I’ve never found one (yet),” another said.

Others marvelled at the “amazing footage”. While someone else was just happy to have seen video of a new creature. “I never knew they existed,” they wrote.

Marsupial moles branched off from bilbies (pictured) millions of years ago. Source: Getty
Marsupial moles branched off from bilbies (pictured) millions of years ago. Source: Getty

There are two species of marsupial mole, the southern one is called itjaritjari in the local Indigenous language, while the northern is known as kakarratul.

Very little is known by ecologists about either species’ behaviour. “In terms of life history, reproduction behaviour, we know virtually nothing,” Clark said.

The animals are believed to have branched off evolutionarily from bandicoots and bilbies around 64 million years ago, and there are fossils showing they were burrowing at least 15 million years ago.

“They’re a great example of convergent evolution. And like moles in Africa, they're superbly adapted to burrowing,” Clarke said.

“You can see in the video, their front limbs have basically adapted into shovels,

“But the interesting thing is they don't excavate a burrow — they swim through the sand. So you're able to detect where they've been — if you dig a trench into sand dunes, you can see the section of tunnel, but it's filled in again with softer sand. And that can stay in the dune for many years.”

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