Aussie rat in need of a little help

·2-min read

Seen one rat, seen 'em all, right? How about Mastacomys fuscus, or the Broad-toothed Rat?

Probably not. The mild-mannered, chubby-cheeked little critter is more akin in appearance to a native guinea pig than the disease-carrying and widely despised long-tailed Rattus rattus or common street rat.

It is also among Australia's most vulnerable native species and its preferred habitat is shrinking at a rate of knots.

Enter conservation outfit Aussie Ark, who last month launched a crowd-funding campaign to build a captive breeding nucleus for the Toarrana, as the rodent is also known, northwest of Newcastle.

Adelaide-based Foundation for Australia's Most Endangered Species (FAME) also continues to include the Broad-toothed Rat in its pleas for donations.

But therein lies part of the problem: apparently not all Australians are as keen on saving rats, no matter how cute they may be. Aussie Ark's 30-day target to raise $100,000 fell about $40,000 short.

"Rats bring with them the connotation of dirty and diseased," says the not-for-profit's disappointed conservation manager Hayley Shute.

"They lack the attention of the world in comparison to pandas, elephants or tigers."

To be sure, though, Mastacomys is no ordinary rat.

Once widely distributed, it is now a relict mainland species confined to isolated pockets of the Australian Alps and Barrington Tops in NSW, and in Victoria's South Gippsland and Otways.

Innovative but furtive by nature, the Toarrana typically lives in small communities within complexes of runways painstakingly scrabbled into dense patches of low vegetation alongside creek beds.

In winter, it goes under the snow.

Science seems to know little else other than the fact Mastacomys' exclusive diet of moss, damp grass and sedge stems produces rather bright green poo pellets which at least make them trackable.

"If the Broad-toothed Rat disappears from the Barrington Tops, the compounding effects will be felt by all species within the ecosystem," Ms Shute said.

"Species numbers have decreased drastically due to the compounding threats they face."

As well as being prey for introduced predators like foxes and cats, the Broad-toothed Rat's natural environment has been degraded by feral horses, cattle and pigs, with weeds such as Scotch Broom taking over, decreasing food plants and shelter.

The Black Summer fires diminished the rat's remaining habitat by an estimated third. Without intervention, its demise is imminent.

"I cannot stress enough how quickly they are disappearing," Ms Shute said.

"Action is needed right now."

While it was disheartened to fall short of its $100,000 target, Aussie Ark remains committed to Mastacomys fuscus and will build its intended breeding facility regardless, says marketing manager Brodie Meney.

But in a business where every funding dollar counts, the shortfall will be keenly felt and another worthwhile conservation project will be put on hold.

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