The Australian ningaui is small and mighty


Bec Crew


Bec Crew

Bec 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.
By Bec Crew 29 June 2020
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The chihuahua of the Australian desert, the ningaui will mess you up if you so much as look at it the wrong way.

THAT MIGHT BE an exaggeration, but you don’t want to cross a ningaui if you enjoy having all of your fingers.

Again, an exaggeration. But we have two words for these critters: smol and bitey.

Carnivorous marsupials with a taste for insects, spiders, and lizards, ningauis look like dunnarts, but can be told apart by their broader hind feet and bristly, messy-looking fur.

They are nocturnal and elusive, which, along with their tiny bodies, makes them tough to spot. They also have the perfect cover – the hummock (or spinifex) grasses of inland Australia are just the thing to dart in and out of when you’re being pursued by larger creatures.

Related: Giant marsupial ‘Mukupirna’ discovered half a century after it was first dug up

(Video credit: Alex Pike/Saving our Species)

It’s not difficult to be a larger creature. The smallest of the three ningaui species, the Pilbara ningaui (Ningaui timealeyi), is just 5.8 cm long, with a tail of just over 7 cm. This makes it almost half the size of a house mouse.

In fact, the Pilbara ningaui is one of the smallest marsupials on Earth, alongside the minute planigales, also of Western Australia.

The Pilbara ningaui also has the narrowest range of the three – it’s found in the Pilbara and Gascoyne regions of Western Australia, and out into the Little Sandy Desert.

The Southern ningaui (Ningaui yvonneae) is found in northern Australia, in pockets in Western Australia, South Australia, and Victoria. Slightly larger than the Pilbara ningaui, it can grow to 7.4 cm long, with a tail of about 7 cm. It’s distinguished from its relatives by its greyish, olive colouring:

(Image credit: RooM the Agency/Alamy Stock Photo)

The wongai ningaui is ever so slightly larger than the southern ningaui, and has the widest range of them all, from the west of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia to northern South Australia, then up in the southern parts of the Northern Territory, and over to south-western Queensland. 

The name ningaui refers to an Aboriginal legend that describes imp-like creatures that live in the mangroves and lure passers-by to their deaths, consuming them raw. While that might be more diabolical than what the ningaui marsupials are capable of, it’s not for a lack of trying.

Related: Why we need a better appreciation of our native rodents

If you search for an image of these rambunctious creatures, there’s a very good chance it’ll be trying to bite something to death, whether it’s a cricket, a centipede, or a human finger. And boy, do they like human fingers:

(Image credit: Wikimedia)

But they’ll pretty much lunge at anything if given half the chance:

You gotta do what you gotta do when you’re defending yourself.

And finally, here’s a wonderful picture of a ningaui post-murderous bite, looking so pleased with itself: