If you really know your animals, you might look at this little fellow and think you know what it is: an African golden mole. You would be wrong. This is a marsupial mole, one of the strangest and most mysterious animals in Australia, itself a hotbed of strange and mysterious animals. It is not, despite its name, a mole, although to be fair, neither is the African golden mole. Instead it simply looks and behaves sort of like a mole, an example of what’s called evolutionary convergence: two unrelated animals, often in completely different parts of the world, that have evolved in surprisingly similar ways.
The marsupial mole is one of the least-known animals in all of Australia, being naturally elusive and living most of its life underground. Where it lives, what it eats, how it reproduces and communicates and behaves, these are all largely unknown. But what we do know, or think we know, is real strange stuff.
What is it called? There are two species of marsupial mole, the only two surviving members of the Notoryctid family. They’re referred to by two sets of names. In scientific literature, they’re usually called the northern and southern marsupial moles. But the names given to them by the indigenous peoples of central Australia are also sometimes used: the northern marsupial mole is the kakarratul, and the southern is the itjaritjari. What does it look like? The two marsupial mole species are basically impossible to tell apart on first glance. They’re both small animals, only about five or six inches long, and completely covered with thick, glossy goldish-pinkish fur. Most importantly for its underground lifestyle, the marsupial mole has gigantic claws, two on each front paw, that it uses to dig through its habitat. What’s up with its face? Yeah, weird face. So the marsupial mole has a leathery cap over its nose and mouth, but you might notice all the other stuff that’s usually on an animal’s face that isn’t on this one. There are no ears, just two tiny holes that are invisible under the fur. And, well, no eyes. They lack both a pupil and an optical nerve, and aside from some vestigial lens stuff which doesn’t actually work, there’s no sign of any eye-related hardware. They’re fully blind. No eyes. Where does it live? The basic answer is that we don’t really know. Both species live in the deserts of central Australia, with the northern one being, obviously, a little bit more north. But sightings are exceedingly rare, so each new sighting can open up a new zone where the marsupial mole might live. Just for example, it was spotted in the Great Victoria Desert and Gibson Desert in 2000, where it was not known to live. But it seems to prefer soft, sandy desert areas—the better for digging. How does it get around? Studying the marsupial mole is difficult in part because of its movement patterns. It digs through the soft sand of its environment using its huge, shovel-like front claws, but it doesn’t create tunnels—it backfills behind itself. The movement is more like swimming through sand than digging. In case you’re worrying about air, the marsupial mole has very low oxygen requirements; it seems able to survive perfectly well by breathing the meager air trapped between grains of sand under the surface of the desert. What does it eat? Marsupial moles are rarely spotted in the wild, and museums only get ahold of a few per year to analyze stomach contents. Plus, they don’t seem to survive in captivity. So as to what the marsupial mole eats, there’s a lot of guesswork involved. It seems to eat a lot of insect larvae, adult insects, and sometimes small lizards. How many are there? Good and important question, but the truth is, we have absolutely no idea. According to Australian Geographic, there are only between five and 15 sightings of the marsupial mole per decade, which means scientists don’t have a clue how many of them there are. They might be desperately endangered, or they might be fairly common and just go unnoticed. That said, they have shown up in examinations of cat and dog poop, meaning that they, like many other Australian animals, are preyed upon by introduced animals. When was it discovered? It was well-known to the Aboriginal people of central Australia, but European colonists were unaware of these animals until 1888, when a researcher sent a specimen to the South Australian Museum. Unfortunately, the specimen was pretty deteriorated by the time it arrived, and early conclusions about the animal—like, that it was not a marsupial—proved wrong. So it’s not a mole. Is it a marsupial? Yes, it is. There’s a small pouch, which is capable of suckling either one or two young. The pouch is backward-facing, like the wombat and koala, and unlike the kangaroo. But both DNA research and the fossil record (here’s a study about ancient marsupial mole teeth, if you’re interested) indicate that it’s not particularly closely related to any other marsupial. The marsupial mole seems to be very much its own thing, a distinct branch of the marsupial evolutionary tree. How does it communicate? Again, nobody’s quite sure. But analysis of the marsupial mole’s brain shows that its olfactory sense—the sense of smell—is really overdeveloped. This probably helps it find prey underground, but it also seems possible that they communicate with other moles by scent-marking of some sort. They’ve been known to squeak angrily when handled, so they are capable of vocalizations, too. Are they social animals? Probably not. No group burrows have been discovered, as are created by many other burrowing mammal species, so it’s generally assumed that the marsupial mole is solitary. That said, a recent survey, done in cooperation with Aboriginal trackers, found that sometimes the marsupial mole does leave tunnels behind, at least in certain types of sand. How does it survive underground? Marsupial moles have a bunch of very strange adaptations to allow them to live mostly underground. One study in 2000 found that the moles are able to decrease their body temperature significantly to match the sand around them, thus decreasing the amount of energy expended. This type of activity is more associated with reptiles like lizards than with marsupials. How does it survive in the desert? Animals in any desert, including much of Australia’s interior, need some kind of adaptation to survive with the extreme lack of water. Like some of its neighbors, including the bilby, the marsupial mole does not seem to need to drink water; it gets all its necessary hydration from the squish larval food it prefers. Let’s talk about those paws. Okay, so, it doesn’t just have two fingers; the claws are its third and fourth fingers. They’re specialized for digging in sand, though they’re different from a mole. A mole has a relatively standard-looking paw, with five fingers (as well as a sixth bone, kind of like the one the giant panda uses to hold bamboo). The regular mole’s hands are just huge and tough with long nails; the marsupial mole looks more like it’s holding a death-shovel of some sort. What’s going on with the names? Scientists who study, or attempt to study, the marsupial moles often do not like that they carry the name “mole” at all. In an interview with the Guardian, one scientist compared it to calling a kangaroo a “marsupial deer.” It isn’t at all closely related to moles; they just look sort of similar. You can see a true mole’s paw above: it’s clearly very different. Scientists prefer to use either the Linnaean (or scientific) names, or the Aboriginal names for these two species. How are they treated in Aboriginal culture? The indigenous people of central Australia were perfectly aware of both species of marsupial mole, long before Europeans came by. It was not ever eaten, really; it’s awfully hard to catch and its small size makes it a pretty inadequate meal. But it does feature in the Aboriginal belief structure often referred to as Dreamtime. The marsupial mole sometimes features as an almost foundational figure in some of these stories, an ancestral being that created some sacred places.