A Rat by Any Other Name

Take a moment and picture a common Australian animal. Here are some clues – it’s small. It lives in rivers and waterways, where its dense fur coat and thick tail make it a sturdy swimmer. It’s shy, staying hidden during the day (less so in winter, when a streamside sunbeam makes a perfect spot to warm up and bask). It eats whatever insects and crustaceans it can fit through its broad, flattened mouth.

Up to this point (if you skimmed past the article title), you might be imagining either one of two Australian natives. The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is a familiar emblem of Australia’s creeks, delighting tourist and local alike whenever there’s a spotting. And rightly so – with a soft body, sleepy expression, and harmless appearance, the platypus enjoys a charisma that keeps it in the good graces of the public. This is despite the males having poisonous spurs that can induce months of pain untreatable by morphine.

The Australian platypus in action.  Image: Museum Victoria

The Australian platypus in action. Image: Museum Victoria

However, this isn’t another article about the platypus (and its problematic pluralisation – is it platypi? Platypodes? Platypuses?). It is about language though; the way a species can be perceived, and marketed, and raised as a focal point for campaigns of conservation or destruction.

Hydromys chrysogaster was first described in 1804, at a time when Europeans were still acquiring the vocabulary for Australia’s unique ecosystems. Wombats were native badgers; koalas were native sloths; thylacines were native wolves, and later tigers. The platypus was a beaver, a mole, a bird, a fish, and a hoax, before eventually settling on flatfoot (platypus), bird-snout (Ornithorhynchus), and duck-like (anatinus).

By contrast to the majority, H. chrysogaster was an easy job – in English its name means yellow-bellied water mouse, and it is indeed a member of the mouse family. But for its size, and in the interest of comprehension to foreign naturalists, it was called the Australian water rat.

Ornithorhynchus anatinus , the duck-like bird snout.  Image: NMA

Ornithorhynchus anatinus, the duck-like bird snout. Image: NMA

Hydromys chrysogaster,  the yellow-bellied water mouse.  Image: Museum Victoria

Hydromys chrysogaster, the yellow-bellied water mouse. Image: Museum Victoria

When the English colonised Australia, they saw a vast expanse of opportunity and resources. Modern corporations like the Australian Agricultural Company and the Van Diemen’s Land Company started during the early 19th century, raising cattle and sheep for export back to Europe. The dominant thought – public and private, small and large – was of expanding an empire.

As the frontier of farming communities pushed outward, native landscapes and species suffered. Most famously, Australia saw the extinction of the thylacine after a century of conflict. The Tasmanian tiger was subjected to loss of territory, loss of food, diseases from dogs, and – perhaps most significantly – private and government-sponsored bounties for extermination. The thrill of tiger-hunting was a part of the worldwide British Empire; Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is a monument to the mood, with human’s triumph measured by the death of the villainous tiger.

Frontier men of the early 1900s earned their stripes collecting bounties on  the   Tasmanian   tiger.   Image:  http://nichaygarth.com/

Frontier men of the early 1900s earned their stripes collecting bounties on the Tasmanian tiger. Image: http://nichaygarth.com/

Animal hunting also had more pragmatic motivations. As late as the 1940s, when the threat of extinction had begun affording Australian wildlife protected status, the fur of the water rat was being used for clothing. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney holds a coat made from one hundred H. chrysogaster pelts, collected personally by the coat’s owners on personal holidays. The rat was vermin; was common; was not given the unqualified status of other animals. In Victoria, destruction permits in irrigation areas and seasonal hunting permits were issued until 1967; the species had been placed on a protected list earlier in 1938 after the fur trade drove a decline in number.

The rakali coat held in the Powerhouse Museum.  Image: Powerhouse Museum

The rakali coat held in the Powerhouse Museum. Image: Powerhouse Museum

Rebranding the Hydromys with other names, like the ‘Australian otter’, has helped its image simply by providing the public with a different point of reference in understanding its lifestyle. In the 1990s, a (perhaps obvious) decision was made to use Indigenous Australian names for Australian animals – from consulting the ancestral languages across its range, Hydromys was given the name of rakali.

Creating public awareness of the species is important; rakali is an elusive species, with attempts to monitor the population only resulting in trapping rates of 6-30% and usually as a by-product of platypus surveying. However, there is an indication that the species is experiencing population crashes in regions across Australia. An aquatic species is always only tenuously secure in Australia’s climate, and the rakali are vulnerable due to their breeding cycle being broken by drought. The design of modern irrigation channels also creates difficulties, with concreting or plastic lining depriving rakali of opportunities to dig burrows.

The Australian Platypus Conservancy has begun delivering seminars on rakali to local councils, recognising the overlapping benefits of restoring habitat. The apex predator flourishes best in healthy waterways, functioning as a barometer for management regimes. Creating public awareness is also a useful way for more people to understand their own interactions with the environment, for better or worse. The continued use of the popular Opera House nets – and their use is banned in all Victorian public waters – causes the drowning deaths of rakali that become stuck in them, a fate often shared by platypuses and turtles. More positively, the anecdotal evidence of citizen sightings is helping to build a clearer picture of populations across Melbourne and across the year, and can be incorporated into more widespread projects such as Bowerbird and the Atlas of Living Australia.

The wonder and exoticism of Australia’s wildlife has not diminished since it baffled those first Europeans. Through close observations, we will better begin to appreciate the rarity and individuality of our native species. And if the world can learn to love a bird-snouted flatfoot, there’s probably room for the rakali as well.

If you wish to become more involved in citizen science, you can relay your plant and animal sightings to:

Paul Jones

Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development.

Banner image courtesy of Museum Victoria.