Endangered marsupial brush tail ulgara found at Uluru, delights rangers, scientists

It is small, sweet and hairy – but the brush-tailed mulgara, a carnivorous marsupial in the family of the Tasmanian devil, is known to suck the brain out of its prey, and it lives close to Australia’s most famous landmark.

A group of rangers, researchers and local schoolchildren were thrilled to discover the endangered species on the last night of a fauna survey in Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park this month.

It is the first time in 10 years that the survey has been conducted and it has been reintroduced as a biannual event at the request of the local Anangu people and members of the park board and cultural heritage committee.

Tracking and trapping

The study was a “monumental exercise,” according to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park’s natural cultural resource manager Tracey Guest, with four sites and between 20 and 40 people camping at each over two nights to track and capture all kinds of animals.

A person's hand is placed for size comparison next to a clear animal footprint in red dirt.
A ranger shows the size of a male emu footprint.(Delivered to: Parks Australia)

Among them was Jeremy Kenny, coordinator of the Central Land Councils Tjakura Rangers based in nearby Mutitjulu.

Mr. Kenny is a western Arranda man from Hermannsburg, west of Alice Springs, with family connections to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta area.

He said he learned valuable skills from the local Anangu rangers and trackers with intimate knowledge of the unique landscape.

A shot from the air by a convoy of four wheels drives about ten people standing next to an edge road.
Rangers from Katiti Petermann and Angas Down’s original protected areas participated.(Delivered: Central Landråd)

“The local people, before there were machines, they tracked primarily goannas, perents and other things they would normally eat, and smaller animals they would catch for the kids, to teach them,” he said.

New technology such as motion cameras, designed to take pictures of small mammals, were introduced in the park for the first time together with bat and bird recorders and were supplemented with traditional tracking methods.

Two men in jeans and sweaters, one in a hat;  the other in the cap, leaning on a shovel.
Central Land Council Tjakura rangers Ashley Paddy and Peter Norman at the fauna survey. (Delivered: Central Landråd)

“Anangu’s understanding of animal behavior is extraordinary and is only gained by being in the countryside as a child with their elderly,” Ms. Guest said.

Local tjitji – Anangu children – participated in the study’s nocturnal spotlight sessions and learned to read animal tracks.

“The first camp we had 14 young children from Mutitjulu on school holidays. They were lovely and good little trackers,” Mrs Guest said.

On the trip, Anangu, including Docker River Central Land Council ranger Bernard Bell and Tjakura ranger Peter Norman demonstrated skills such as how to identify the trail of a lukupupu or lion ant that moves backwards before waiting for its prey under the sand.

A group of children in the bush with three men supervising.
CLC ranks Daniel Breaden with school children who participated in the survey during their school vacations.(Delivered: Central Landråd)

“On one occasion, what Chitji thought was a kangaroo track was actually a Nyingtuka [perentie] in search of a sandgoanna, “said Mrs. Guest.

“The clues they thought were kangaroos were [actually] how the nyingtuka would get up on his hind legs to see sandgoanna. “

The teams found tracks, caves and hiding places for a multitude of animals, from military kites to small button quails.

“The kids were pretty excited – camped out and set up the traps with the park rangers, CLC rangers,” Mr. Kenny.

“We did some evening spotlighting with some young kids – they enjoyed it.”

A man in a work shirt with a blue collar and black cap looks directly at the camera.
Tjakura ranger coordinator Jeremy Kenny hopes to run more programs with children on Uluru-Kata Tjuta.(Delivered)

Animal abundance a ‘good surprise’

Mrs Guest said there were an encouraging number of creatures in the area despite dry weather in recent years.

“We’ve had very little rain – 27 millimeters in 2019, last year around 150 mm, and this year we’re only around that mark, even though it’s a La Nina year,” she said.

On the last night of the investigation, the team captured the bristle mulgara, an endangered species related to the Tasmanian devil and quolls, “to everyone’s delight,” Ms. Guest said.

A mouse-like marsupial among long grass in a glass enclosure.
The small bristle tail ulgara was found the last night of the study.(Delivered to: Parks Australia)

“The mulgara was quite exciting to find in the sandy desert area,” said Mr. Kenny, describing its “fat tail, sharp teeth, and pointed nose.”

“I thought they usually just lived in the hills, in the mountains.”

In Uluru-Kata Tjuta, the mulgara is not the only carnivorous marsupial found.

The study captured a “small but furious” wongai ningaui as well as “a number of cute sandy mice who loved to put their teeth down in ignorant fingers,” Ms. Guest said.

There were more than 11 types of reptiles, including geckos, hams, mulga snakes and a woma python, as well as an abundance of insects and spiders.

The team caught a spinifex-jumping mouse along with a small desert gate, “which looks like a small gray-haired mouse but only exists in certain-aged, mature spinifex,” Ms. Guest explained.

“When we manage the park, we need to consider having the different types of habitats so that each of these animals can thrive.”

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