The desert-dwelling mulgara

By Bec Crew | October 23, 2014

The females of this species often conserve energy by hibernating during much of a pregnancy

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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.

THIS IS THE NATIVE Australian mulgara, a close relation of the Tasmanian devil and the quoll. With a length of 20cm – half of which is taken up by its tail – the mulgara is much smaller than its carnivorous cousins, but don’t be fooled! It’s just as vicious and just as toothy.

While this desert-dwelling predator usually subsists on a diet of insects and spiders, if it comes across a lizard, mouse, or newborn baby snake, it’ll happily sink its fangs in and make a delicious meal out of it.

There are two known species of mulgara – the brush-tailed mulgara (Dasycercus blythi), and the crest-tailed mulgara (D. cristicauda). You can pretty easily figure out what species a particular mulgara belongs to by checking how fluffy its tail is and how many teeth and nipples it has, but it’s their range that really sets them apart.

The brush-tailed mulgara enjoys a pretty extensive range running right through the middle of Australia, where it thrives in the arid spinifex grasslands of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The crest-tailed mulgara, on the other hand, is found only in a tiny pocket of the southern Simpson Desert in Queensland.

Mulgara mums sleep the pregnancy away

Like the lovely little western pygmy possum, the mulgara whiles away much of its life in a state of torpor. In the mulgara’s case, this energy-preserving period of reduced physiological activity can last anywhere from three to 12 hours a day, which is perfect for pregnant mulgara mums that don’t want to deal with being pregnant all the time. It’s tough carrying around all that extra weight!

A 1994 study on crest-tailed mulgaras led by zoologist Fritz Geiser from the Department of Zoology at the University of New England in Armidale found that during the species’ reproductive season – which runs from June to December – 75 percent of the pregnant females fell frequently into the deep sleep of torpor.

Not the males though – less than half of them were found to regularly display torpor during this time, because their genes aren’t going to pass themselves on!

If you’ve been wondering this whole time what a mulgara would look like with a tiny cape on, wonder no more. And here’s another one having its nipples counted: