Image Credit: Last, Peter R. & Gledhill, Daniel C/CSIRO

This is the face of one of the rarest animals in Australia

  • June 18, 2018

It might not look like much, but that enigmatic grimace belongs to one of the rarest and most elusive species in the country — the maugean skate.

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.

THE ONLY known skate to permanently inhabit brackish waters, the maugean skate (Zearaja maugeana) is found exclusively in Tasmania. And with just two known haunts – Macquarie Harbour and Bathurst Harbour – it’s been whittled down to a few thousand individuals.

In fact, there have been no new sightings in Bathurst Harbour since 1989, so there’s a strong possibility that the species is now only found in a single pocket of estuarine water on Earth.

First discovered by University of Tasmania marine ecologist Graham Edgar in 1988, the maugean skate earned the nickname, “Thylacine of the Sea”, because it's one of the largest predatory species in Tasmania, and like its long-gone terrestrial counterpart, it sure knows how to blend in with its surroundings.

With a large, flat body shaped like a quadrangle, and dark brown skin patterned with pale cream blotches, the maugean skate doesn’t look like much, but it’s been at this for a really long time. 

skate

(Image Credit: Last, Peter R. & Gledhill, Daniel C/CSIRO)

It’s thought that the species has been thriving in Tasmanian waters as far back as the Cretaceous period, when Australia was still part of the Gondwana supercontinent.

And here’s the really cool thing about the maugean skate – it’s got two living cousins, one in Southern New Zealand and one in Patagonia, and while its habitat in Tasmania is unlike any other environment in Australia, it’s strikingly similar to those of its relatives in New Zealand in Patagonia.

This is clearly an animal that knows what it likes.

Here’s some rare footage of one cruising along the sea floor in Macquarie Harbour. Filmed in 2013 by Tasmania’s Eaglehawk Dive Centre, this is reportedly the only footage of the species:

As if the maugean skate’s super-low population numbers weren’t enough, its highly specialised habitat has also become a liability.

According to Graham Edgar, dangerously high levels of metals trickle down from the nearby rivers into the Macquarie Harbour, and combined with recreational gill net fishing and newly-established fish farms, the maugean skate has got its work cut out for it if it wants to survive.

The good news is Bathurst Harbour has been designated a protected World Heritage Area, and researchers at the University of Tasmania are working in Macquarie Harbour to learn more about the species’ distribution and preferred habitat. So there could be hope for this prehistoric curiosity yet.