8 adorable Aussie desert-dwellers

By Campbell Phillips 17 January 2018
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These arid-zone mammals are tougher than they look, surviving in some of Australia’s harshest conditions.

THE MARSUPIAL family Dasyuridae has adapted well to the conditions, and if you spend time in the desert, you might be lucky enough to spot one of these rodent look-alikes. But with about 20 species of small dasyurid in the arid zone and some native true rodents too, most people would be hard-pressed to pick a kultarr or a dunnart from a house mouse.

These little desert creatures tend to be nocturnal, sheltering below ground during the heat of the day. Many don’t even need to drink, as their water requirements are met by food.

Dasyurids are mostly insectivorous, while native rodents tend to eat more seeds and vegetation. The similarity of these natives to some introduced rodents means they are easily mistaken for pests and sometimes killed. Some of the species shown here are officially classified as vulnerable and several closely related species are endangered. 

All illustrations by Kevin Stead.

1. Wongai Ningaui

Ningaui ridei

Wongai Ningaui

Family: Dasyuridae

Body length: 60 —70mrn

Tail: 60-70mm

This mammal resembles a dunnart but has broader hind feet and bristly fur. Unlike many other small desert mammals, wongai ningauis can climb into low-lying vegetation, aided by their semi-prehensile tails. They are mostly found in mature spinifex grassland but also inhabit sand-plains, mallee woodland and open shrubland.

2. Spinifex hopping mouse

Notomys alexis

Spinifex hopping mouse

Family: Muridae Body length: 95-115mm


This small native rodent is characterised by its kangaroo-like hop. It’s highly social, cooperating with others to dig several burrows up to 1 m deep with connecting runways. As many as 10 adults will share these nests, plugging entrances with sand to minimise water loss.

3. Kowari

Dasyuroides byrnei


Family: Dasyuridae

Body length: 130-180mm

Tail: 110-140mm

It’s thought that the total kowari population consists of fewer than 10,000 individuals, with numbers fluctuating through flood and drought cycles. Threats include feral cats, habitat degradation from livestock, and climate change. They prefer to dig their burrows into tussock grasslands, dry riverbeds and sand dunes.

4. Stripe-faced dunnart

Sminthopsis macroura

Stripe-faced dunnart

Family: Dasyuridae

Body length: 70-100mm

Tail: 80-100mm

The stripe-faced dunnart has the ability to store nutrients and water in its tail. Healthy individuals will often have a tail that appears fattened at the base. It’s widely distributed throughout Australia’s dry grasslands and shrublands.

5. Fat-tailed antechinus

Pseudantechinus macdonnellensis

Fat-tailed antechinus

Family: Dasyuridae

Body length: 90-110mm

Tail: 70-90mm

This marsupial is named for its ability to store fat in its tail, which it does more noticeably than other dasyurids, giving it an almost carrot-like shape when well nourished. Unlike many other small arid-zone mammals, it’s notable for appearing during the day to bask in the sunlight near the rocky crevices in which it nests.

6. Crest-tailed mulgara

Dasycercus cristicauda

Crest-tailed mulgara

Family: Dasyuridae

Body length: 120-220mm

Tail: 70-130mm

One of the largest desert-dwelling dasyurids, the mulgara eats insects, small reptiles and other mammals. It has only recently been distinguished as a separate species from the similar brush-tailed variety and is thought to have a preference for burrowing into open sand dunes or salt pans.

7. Kultarr

Antechinomys laniger


Family: Dasyuridae

Body length: 70-110mm

Tail: 100-150mm

The kultarr has disappeared from some areas of NSW, but is widespread across the rest of its range. It’s notoriously difficult to trap and therefore study. The kultarr is characterised by its bounding gait, due to elongated hind feet that allow it to rapidly change direction by pivoting on its forefeet.

8. Plains mouse

Pseudomys australis

plains mouse

Family: Muridae

Body length: 100-140mm

Tail: 80-120mm

Described as ‘eruptive’, this native rodent, also known as the plains rat, breeds rapidly in response to heavy rainfall. One of the largest rodents still present in arid regions, it inhabits burrows on stony plains, relying on erosion from water to create suitable burrowing sites.