The golden-backed tree rat. Image Credit: Copyright Australian Wildlife Conservancy

Australia’s golden rat has stolen our hearts

  • February 05, 2018

Meet Australia's gorgeous golden-backed tree rat.

Contributor
Bec Crew

Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.

YOU MIGHT STRUGGLE to find something to love about a regular rat, but this sun-kissed furball is one of the sweetest, most beautiful rodents we’ve ever seen.

And lucky they’re so photogenic - most of us will never actually encounter one in the wild, because they’re tucked away in one of the most pristine and remote locations in Australia, known as our continent’s ‘lost world’.

The golden-backed tree rat (Mesembriomys macrurus) is found exclusively in Australia. By day, they sleep in nests built in the hollows of trees, and by night, they hunt down a variety of flowers, fruits, insects, and grasses.

Little else is known about their behaviour, but those who have handled them describe them as having large, dark eyes; a ‘Mohawk’ of golden fur running long their back; and a long, paintbrush-like tail with a fluffy plume on the end. 

You can see one in action here:

The golden-backed tree rat was once widespread across the northern Australia, but it’s now restricted to the Kimberley coast in Western Australia, and on the nearby islands of Carlia, Conilurus (Margaret), Hidden, Uwins, and Wollaston.

Amazingly enough, while these native rodents have gone through a significant decline due to habitat loss and feral cat predation, they appear to be thriving in the Kimberley rainforests, with an extent of occurence of more than 20,000 km2.

At first glance, that doesn’t make much sense - a creature as obviously vulnerable as this little golden rat in a country with the worst mammal extinction rate on the planet.

But the key to the species’ success is the fact that it happens to live in the only region of Australia that’s managed to suffer zero animal extinctions since European settlement.

And now an extraordinary conservation project has just been launched to ensure that record holds steady for decades to come.

The final stronghold

You might not have heard of them, but Australia’s Yampi region and Dambimangari country together protect more than 1,300,000 hectares of the Kimberley coast – the last stronghold for the golden-backed tree rat.

Yampi sits in a remote corner of the west Kimberley, and includes more than 700 kilometres of coastline. Back in the 1970’s, Australia’s Defence Force purchased the land, and it’s been virtually untouched ever since.

More recently, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC)– a conservation group that establishes and manages wildlife sanctuaries that now spread over 4.6 million hectares – has been contracted to help protect the many endemic and threatened species that live in Yampi, such as the northern quoll, the golden-backed tree-rat, the monjon, the western partridge pigeon, the black grasswren, the Gouldian Finch, and the orange leaf-nosed bat.

Yampi sits within the traditional country of the Dambimangari people, which covers more than 800,000 hectares of land alongside the Kimberley coast.

Back in December 2017, the AWC entered into a partnership with the Dambimangari people – the first ever partnership of its kind between a non-government conservation organisation and an indigenous community in Australia – to help conserve Dambimangari country and its many iconic species, including the golden-backed tree rat.

With no less than 56 native land mammals now threatened with extinction in Australia, it’s not often we get to hear good news about the fate of our species.

But judging by the amount of protection the golden-backed tree rat is now getting, we can safely say that – for now, at least – this special little rodent is golden.

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