Meet Norbit: The impossibly cute nabarlek
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.
NORBIT’S IS ONE of the most special macropods you’ll ever meet, because Norbit is the only nabarlek to be held in captivity in the world. And let’s just say, he seems to know it.
Until the discovery of the monjon just 40 years ago, nabarleks (Petrogale concinna) were known to be the smallest rock-wallabies on Earth, growing to just 29 to 35 cm long, and weighing no more than 1.7 kg.
Also known as pygmy rock-wallaby, nabarleks are only found in a few select regions of Australia: Arnhem Land; between the Mary and Victoria Rivers in the Top End of the Northern Territory; the coastal Kimberley region of Western Australia, including some islands in the Bonaparte Archipelago; and Kakadu National Park.
They’re currently endangered, because their populations are isolated and they’re a perfect target for feral cats, so being able to establish a captive breeding program for the species would be a big step towards ensuring their continued survival.
But that all depends on finding Norbit a mate.
Norbit found his way to the Territory Wildlife Park in Darwin back in 2015, when he was transferred from an aged care facility in the Kalano Community of the Katherine. He was thought to be just 10 months old at the time.
“Norbit was the only nabarlek to be held in captivity in the world in 2015, and as far as we know, this is still the case today,” says Fiona Colquhoun, supervisor of the Nocturnal House at the Territory Wildlife Park.
“In the wild, nabarleks are very secretive and nocturnal, and are found high up in the escarpment country, so the chances of having them handed in is quite rare.”
“When Norbit first came to the Wildlife Park, he was very friendly and very imprinted by people. He was sporting quite an amazing hairdo – we think some of the community kids were treating him like a living doll. He had beautiful dyed bright red fur on his back and a lot of his fur had been shaped into interesting shapes and patterns.”
Because Norbit’s features were so similar to the short-eared rock-wallaby (Petrogale brachyotis), he had to have his DNA tested to confirm that he was in fact a nabarlek.
The more he got comfortable in his new digs, the more Norbit began to show his true character. He’s since acquired the nickname Naughty Norbit, because he’s not above terrorising the Wildlife Park staff, who are just trying to clean his enclosure.
“Even though he only stands just 40 cm high, he is a typical hand-raised macropod, and has no fear of people. He will often attack keeper’s legs,” says Colquhoun. “Norbit has been trained to be locked up daily into a pet pack for a reward of sweet corn pieces so keepers can enter the exhibit to clean without being bitten.”
“I think the thing about Norbit that makes us really laugh is his love of food, and for such a little creature, he has the attitude of a 6-foot-high red kangaroo. I’ve seen grown men and woman run in panic to get away from the cute little guy…”
Here he is working very hard in the office at the Territory Wildlife Park.
(Image Credit: Territory Wildlife Park)
Colquhoun explains that the thing that sets nabarlek apart from most other macropods – other than their tiny stature – is that they can replace their molar teeth regularly, which helps them chew grasses and flowering plants called sedges.
Once they’ve worn their front molars down by chewing on these abrasive foods, a nabarlek will lose these teeth, and grow some more at the back of its jaw. This triggers a conveyer belt-like process that pushes the existing molars forward to replace the front molars that were lost.
If only we humans could have evolved to have a system like that…
The Territory Wildlife Park is currently on the hunt for a nabarlek female to pair with Norbit, so they can set up the world’s first captive breeding program for the species
“We currently have a wallaby muster where people can get up close and personal with agile wallabies and Antilopine Wallaroos, so to be able educate people about one of the smallest and most secretive macropod species in the Northern Tropics would be amazing,” says Colquhoun.
“Not a lot of information is known about the nabarlek, so it would also be fantastic to collect more data maintaining a captive population. This would also allow the possibility of other zoo Industries and wildlife parks to display the nabarlek.”