Two new Aussie mammal species discovered in the outback

Find out more about these mouse-sized creatures that had been living in plain sight.

Two new Aussie mammal species have just been discovered and here’s why that’s remarkable.

The planigales are smaller than a mouse and were living in the expanse of Western Australia’s rugged outback Pilbara region.

It had previously been thought there were just two species of planigale in Australia. Then 20 years ago, new specimens were collected that were noticeably different. That led researchers to sequence their DNA and slowly, visually map their differences — as a result, there are now four known species of planigale.

The cracking-clay Pilbara planigale is one of two newly discovered species. Source: P. tealei F CR. L. Umbrello
The cracking-clay Pilbara planigale is one of two newly discovered species. Source: P. tealei F CR. L. Umbrello

Did you know the outback was home to tiny native mammals?

Australia shamefully has the worst mammalian extinction record in the world, and thanks to pressure from developers, changes to the climate from the burning of fossil fuels, and competition from introduced predators more species are set to vanish.

While it's common for scientists to discover new species of insects, spiders, or even reptiles, describing undiscovered mammals is a much rarer occurrence.

Having worked on the project for almost two years, lead author Dr Linette Umbrello described being able to publicly announce the discovery as "rewarding".

"We have this whole suite of small mammals living in arid Australia that a lot of people don't know about, and they're an important part of the ecosystem," she told Yahoo News Australia.

Other recent species discoveries in Australia

What are the most interesting facts about the new discoveries?

The species names are Pilbara planigale (Planigale kendricki) and the cracking-clay Pilbara planigale (P. tealei). Now that we know they exist, it’s hoped we can learn more and protect them.

The discovery was made by researchers from the Western Australian Museum and Queensland University of Technology.

Dr Umbrello said the orange-headed Pilbara planigale appears common across the Pilbara, but the cracking-clay Pilbara planigale seems to be restricted to low-lying areas near floodplains. Information collected by the team suggests both species are "doing okay" and not vulnerable to extinction.

"Because they're a new species, they're a bit data deficient. So we're sort of making that decision based on records that people have collected," she said.

The cracking-clay Pilbara planigale (right) is smaller than the range-headed Pilbara planigale (left).
The cracking-clay Pilbara planigale (right) is smaller than the orange-headed Pilbara planigale (left). Source: P. tealei CR. L. Umbrello/P. kendricki CR. R. Teale

During her announcement about the news species, Dr Umbrello said the creatures were “fascinating animals”.

“Both species actively forage during the night for food including grasshoppers, small lizards and other invertebrates, and they take shelter during the day,” she said.

Published in the journal Zootaxa, the research warns small mammals are continuing to decline across Australia, but the new research “makes a start at resolving the cryptic diversity” of the Planigale family.

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