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:

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

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. 

The Extinction Of The Thylacine: A Cautionary Account

The thylacine sounds like something out of a children’s book: it was an animal with the body of a dog, a kangaroo’s tail, a pouch, and stripes from its shoulders to its tail. It is said to have had an awkward gait and was rarely seen to move quickly, yet it was a proficient carnivore, preying upon a variety of marsupials under the cover of darkness. Thylacinus cynocephalus (dog-headed pouch-dog), also known by its more common name the Tasmanian tiger, was once an apex predator throughout mainland Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea.

This unusual creature is an excellent example of convergent evolution, which occurs when two unrelated species are put under similar evolutionary pressures and exist in a similar ecological role, producing two species that possess similar features. In other words, similar problems produce similar solutions. Although the thylacine superficially resembled members of the family Canidae (such as wolves and dingoes) with its sharp teeth, raised heels, muscular jaws and dog-like body form, its marsupial pouch, kangaroo-like tail and relatively short legs point towards the fact that this species is only distantly related to its canine doppelgangers. It was the only extant member of the family Thylacinidae, its closest relatives being the Tasmanian devil and the numbat.

One of the few photographs taken of the last thylacine, a resident of Hobart Zoo.  Photo courtesy of Australian Museum.

One of the few photographs taken of the last thylacine, a resident of Hobart Zoo. Photo courtesy of Australian Museum.

The modern thylacine evolved around four million years ago, and although it had previously been found throughout continental Australia, it became extinct on the mainland at least two thousand years ago. The mainland extinction was possibly due to competition with dingoes. However, this is arguably related to the two species’ opposing lifestyles: dingoes typically hunt during the day, whilst thylacines were mostly nocturnal.

The thylacine's last stronghold was the island of Tasmania, but the arrival of Europeans to Tasmania in 1803 spelled the beginning of the end for the marsupial carnivore. When sheep were introduced to the island in 1824, the thylacine began to gain notoriety among farmers as the culprit responsible for attacks on livestock. While Tasmanian tigers would have had some effect on the growing population of sheep on the island, their impact was greatly exaggerated. One infamous photo of a Tasmanian tiger with a chicken in its mouth is now thought to have been staged, with the photographer likely to have created the scene by placing a dead chicken in the mouth of a taxidermied thylacine. Due to the hype surrounding its apparent effect on livestock, a bounty was placed on the thylacine, with the Tasmanian government paying one pound per head. Between 1888 and 1909, over 2184 bounties were paid out to farmers and hunters alike.

The infamous image of a thylacine with a chicken in its mouth - most likely staged.  Photo courtesy of Australian Geographic.

The infamous image of a thylacine with a chicken in its mouth - most likely staged. Photo courtesy of Australian Geographic.

By this time, hunting had taken its toll on the species. Thylacine sightings became infrequent, and zoos around the world sought after the strange animal. Still, the extermination undertaken by farmers and hunters continued. The last known wild thylacine was shot by farmer Wilf Batty in 1930, and then finally, the last captive thylacine died in Hobart Zoo on the 7th of September, 1936. Only then, once the last known Tasmanian tiger had perished, was it placed on the threatened species list. Ultimately, having not been seen in the wild for fifty years, the thylacine was declared extinct in 1986. In addition to the hunting pressure brought about by humans, the demise of the thylacine has been attributed to habitat loss, competition with dingoes and introduced wild dogs, and the concurrent demise of its prey species.

The extinction of this mysterious marsupial is commemorated every year on Threatened Species Day, which falls on the 7th of September: the day that the last known Tasmanian tiger died. Now more than ever is the loss of the thylacine relevant to the struggles we face in trying to combat the extinction of our native animals, and should serve as a reminder not to take our unique wildlife for granted. Victoria is home to an array of species that not only fascinate and inspire, but also play an integral role in their respective ecosystems. Personally, I would have treasured a sighting of a Tasmanian tiger in its natural environment, but sadly this is something that I and countless others will never experience. We need to rally behind our native wildlife today so that as we grow old, we will not look back and wish we had done more.

Australia has the worst mammalian extinction rate of any country in the world, having lost 29 species over the past two centuries. I wonder, what is in store for the next 200 years?

A combination of all known video footage of the thylacine. Courtesy of The Thylacine Museum.

Banner image courtesy of Joseph Gleeson (painter)