Marsupial Mole What is a Marsupial Mole?

The marsupial mole is a rarely seen and little-known burrowing underground animal that literally 'swims' through sand. Found in the arid Australian Outback, this animal spends almost its entire life underground. It is probably one of the world's most unusual and least understood animals. Its Aboriginal name is Itjaritjari.

There are two species of marsupial moles. While they differ genetically, the main difference between the two are their habitats and slight variations in size. The southern marsupial mole Notoryctes typhlops) found in northern South Australia, the Northern Territory and central Western Australia is approximately 13-15 cm in length, and weighs 30-60 gms with a tail of 2-2.5 cm. The northern marsupial mole (Notoryctes caurinus), which is the larger of the two, is found in the north western part of Western Australia is 10-20 cm in length (average 16cm) and weigh 30-70 gms with similar length tails. The lifespan of these animals is not known.

Marsupial Mole - Description What Do Marsupial Moles Look Like

The marsupial mole is a little sausage-like animal. Its short dense silky smooth white fur is usually tinged by the colour of the sand it burrows through giving its body colour ranges from almost white through pinkish cinnamon to rich golden red. There is no noticeable difference between male and female animals except that the female has a larger backward facing pouch with two nipples. (The male stores its testes internally in its smaller pouch). It has a cone-shaped head with a stiff, almost non-existent neck, with five of the animal's seven neck vertebrae fused together to give its head added rigidity so it can be used like a ram when digging in its underground environment.

The marsupial mole has very short stumpy legs with five toes on each foot. Toes three and four of its front feet are enlarged and have triangular, spade-like claws that are used for excavate soil in front of it. The first and second toes have small claws and are opposed to the third and fourth allowing the animal to grasp its prey. Its rear feet are flattened and slightly webbed with middle three digits possessing small claws. It uses its hind feet to push soil behind it. It has a short bald tail covered in leathery skin just a few centimetres in length with a a hard knob at the end.

It has a featureless face with vestigial eyes hidden beneath its fur. These eyes have lost their usefulness in the course of evolution. As a consequence the marsupial mole is totally blind. Its ears are just tiny holes on the side of its head and are safely tucked away under its thick fur. These ears are very sensitive to low frequency sounds. It has a nose with small slit-like nostrils protected by hard callused keratinised (The same stuff as your hair and fingernails.) skin acting like a shield. The marsupial mole has a very good sense of smell.

Special Adaptations of the Marsupial Mole

Marsupial moles have some unusual tricks for dealing with their unique lifestyle and to conserve energy.

  • They have very low oxygen requirements and can subsist by breathing the air trapped between grains of sand.
  • They can adjust their body temperatures to that of the surrounding sand. This allows them to fluctuate their body temperatures from 15°C to 30°C without affecting their metabolism.
  • They have a generally low metabolic rate to conserve energy but can increase it up to 60 times when required, giving them a huge burst of additional energy.
  • Both male and female marsupial moles have backward facing pouches to prevent sand from entering it while they are digging underground.
  • The male marsupial mole stores its testes in its pouch thereby protecting it from harm while digging.

What is a Marsupial?

Marsupial Mole - Swims Through Sand How the Marsupial Mole Moves Underground & Aboveground

Marsupial Mole Digging Video

Unlike most other burrowing animals the marsupial mole doesn't dig out hollow tunnels through which it travels. Instead, it "swims" through the sand, like some sort of underwater swimmer, displacing the sand in front of it as it slow nudges itself, a few centimetres at a time, forward.

The mole uses its spade-like front limbs to scope out sand in front of it, nudges its nose into the excavated space and deftly passes the said under its body where its webbed and clawed back limbs push the excavates sand back behind it. This scoping and push action slowly propels the animal through the sand without creating a noticeable tunnel behind it. As the animals moves, sand behind it caves in, filling up its path through the sand.

The marsupial mole rarely wanders aboveground and then only for a very short distance. It hauls itself on the surface using a similar swimming motion that it uses underground. When on the surface and re-entering underground, the marsupial mole begins digging with its forefeet, quickly scoping out soil in front of it and its nudges its nose into the newly excavated space. Once below the surface it reverts to its normal digging stance using its front limbs to scope out soil and its back limbs to push the newly excavated sand behind itself.

Marsupial Mole - Habitat & Range Where Does a Marsupial Mole Live?

The southern marsupial mole is found in the western central deserts of Australia at the intersection of South Australia, Northern Territory and Western Australia (coloured blue on the map). The northern marsupial mole is found in the north-western parts of Western Australia (coloured green on the map).

The marsupial moles spends almost its entire life underground. It is rarely see above ground, only appearing on the surface to grab aboveground prey, to mate and when the soil gets too wet after heavy rains.

These moles inhabit areas with soft sandy dunes, sand-plains and sandy soils along river flats where shrubs and grasses such as spinifex are present. Being borrowing animals that do not travel very far aboveground, they spend most of their lives 10cm to 2.5m below the surface and require sufficiently large areas with these conditions in order to burrow freely through the soil. Usually they borrow 20-100 cm below the surface however in extremely hot or cold weather they may burrow deeper to maintain a comfortable body temperature. Marsupial mole tunnelling activity can sometimes be determined by tell-tale oval shaped mounds in the sand identifying their underground trail.

The marsupial mole seems travel underground individually through its collapsing burrow. No evidence of large or permanent burrows where more than one individual might congregate has been found.

Marsupial Mole - Diet What Does a Marsupial Mole Eat?

Marsupial moles are omnivores and feed on a variety of animal and plant matter. These include invertebrates, ant eggs, insect pupae and larvae, centipedes, beetles, small salamanders and lizards, and also seeds and vegetable matter. Given its preference to remain and feed underground it has been suggested that it prefers insect eggs, larvae and pupae deposited underground.

The exact way in which they search for food is unknown. Given their disproportionately large and well developed olfactory bulbs it has been suggested that the primary sense they use for searching out food is their sense of smell. This may be complimented by their their sense of hearing which may detect the sound made by other animals.

Marsupial Mole - Reproduction Marsupial Mole Babies

There is very limited information about the mating and reproductive behaviour of marsupial moles. There has been no observations made in the field or in captivity and no live young marsupial moles have yet been observed. It is believed that breeding takes place around November and that one or two offspring are born. As the all other marsupials, marsupial moles give birth to underdeveloped young that find their way to their mothers pouch where they attach themselves to a nipple, feed and grow into viable offspring.

How do Marsupials Reproduce?

Marsupial Mole - What We Don't Know Lots of Things We Don't Know

There are many things we do not know for sure about the marsupial mole. These include
  • How they detect their food.
  • How they mate, how many babies they have per litter and how often they mate.
  • What times of the day they are active.
  • If they build permanent burrows.
  • Their social behaviour is not known but it is thought that they are solitary animals.

Marsupial Mole - Threats and Predators Is the Marsupial Mole Endangered?

Marsupial moles were rarely hunted by the native aborigines and were quite common until the early 20th century. During the early 20th century marsupial moles were hunted for their pelts. It is believed that several hundred of thousand were killed during this time and the sighting of these animals before more and more rare.

While well protected underground, when on the surface the marsupial moles falls prey to introduced animals such as the feral cats and foxes, dingoes, native birds of prey and snakes.

There is no direct evidence of the status of the marsupial mole population in the wild. It is thought, however, that their are in decline. For this reason the marsupial mole is classified in the ICUN Red List as threatened and the Australian government lists it as endangered.