The numbat, Australia’s missing marsupial

So, I just made a discovery – November 7th 2015 is (or was) the first ever World Numbat Day! I had another post planned for this weekend, coincidentally about a different group of marsupials, but how could I go past this opportunity to write about numbats? I might be a little late to the festivities, but I don’t think the good folks at Project Numbat will mind too much.

Numbat at Perth Zoo. Photo by S J Bennett
Numbat at Perth Zoo. Photo by S J Bennett (CC BY 2.0

In this post I’m not going to share any tales of numbats glimpsed crossing the road in front of my car, or whilst I was hiking in the Australian bush, or even any of my own numbat photographs. There’s a simple reason for this. I’ve never actually seen a numbat. Yes, I know, my credibility is ruined! But wait… before you judge this alleged mammalogist too harshly… the sad truth is that the entire global population of wild numbats alive today would likely fit in my living room. I’m not saying they’d be comfortable stacked up like that, but with fewer than 1000 individuals left it’s not a big stretch of the imagination. The species is listed by the IUCN as endangered.

In terms of ecology and evolution there is no other marsupial quite like the numbat and its decline means that Australian ecosystems are now missing something special. For example, numbats are the only truly diurnal species of marsupial. All other marsupials are nocturnal or crepuscular (which means they are active around dawn and dusk).

Now, unless you’re Australian or followed the 2015 round of Mammal March Madness (in which numbat made a valiant effort to secure a finals spot), you may not have a clue what sort of animal I’m talking about here. The numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus, Waterhouse 1836) is the only living member of the family Myrmecobiidae. If you’re not sure what that means, consider that another marsupial family, the Macropodidae, includes more than 45 species of kangaroos and wallabies. If the numbat goes extinct, we won’t just lose a species, we’ll lose a whole marsupial lineage.

Numbat at Perth Zoo
Numbat at Perth Zoo. Photo by S J Bennett (CC BY 2.0

Numbats weigh in at around 300-750 grams and sport stylish white stripes across their backs, cute little pointy noses, and wonderful bushy tails – there are some great photos on their Arkive profile. They have well-developed claws on their forefeet which they use to excavate termite galleries, and their long sticky tongues are used very effectively to slurp up the delicious termites, which are pretty much the only things they eat. Check out this great footage shared by Project Numbat, which shows a numbat searching for termites:

Once, numbats were found in arid and semi-arid woodlands and grasslands across much of southern Australia, but now they are restricted to the south west of Western Australia. In fact only two (yes two!!!) natural populations remain. This equates to a reduction in range of approximately 97%.

Numbats are now found only in habitats where sufficient hollow logs are available to provide shelter from introduced foxes. Predation by foxes has likely contributed greatly to the decline of numbats. Other threats include predation by feral cats and native raptors, habitat degradation by introduced rabbits and changed fire regimes that reduce the availability of food and hollow logs. Another video from Project Numbat shows a numbat making use of a hollow log shelter:

What does the future hold for the numbat? A captive breeding program (also listen to this radio interview about breeding numbats at Perth Zoo) has allowed the species to be reintroduced to sites in Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales. Unfortunately, recent population declines have been observed at several locations, including one of the remnant natural populations, and reintroductions have failed where the impacts of predators could not be controlled. However, successful reintroductions at two sites have also demonstrated strategies that do actually work. I hope that someday, in the not-too-distant future, much of Australia’s arid and semi-arid ecosystems will again be inhabited by this wonderful marsupial. Perhaps I’ll even get to see one…

If you want to do something to support numbat conservation, the Project Numbat website is a great place to start: donate, volunteer or visit their very nice online shop. Other organisations working to conserve the numbat include the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and Perth Zoo.

Numbat at Perth Zoo
Numbat at Perth Zoo. Photo by S J Bennett (CC BY 2.0

3 Comments Add yours

  1. orionsmcc says:

    Very informative post, enjoyed your writing style!

    1. Anna MacDonald says:

      Thanks 🙂

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