Sandhill Dunnart Stories

Posted on Posted in Eyre Peninsula, furry, Mallee, South Australia, Western Australia

Amanda is a PhD student on a quest to find out more about one of our mysterious marsupials, and she needs your help…

The Sandhill Dunnart (Sminthopsis psammophila) was first discovered in the Northern Territory during 1894 when the lead scientist on the expedition kicked the small darting animal with his boot! 117 years later, these insect-eating marsupials seem to have largely escaped intensive research, and we still know little about them.

The mysterious Sandhill Dunnart (Sminthopsis psammophila). Photo by A. McLean

What we do know is that they are found in semi-arid and arid Australia and there are three core populations; one on the Eyre Peninsula SA, and two in the Great Victorian Desert (one on each side of SA/WA border). Sandhill Dunnarts are nocturnal and are commonly found on sand dunes or sandhills, like their name suggests, where large Spinifex grasses (Triodia spp.) grow.

Sandhill Dunnarts are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List, but our patchy understanding of their ecological requirements makes it difficult to implement management plans to prevent the species from becoming extinct. The need for informed management has become even more urgent as mining activities are starting to encroach on the habitat of the Sandhill Dunnart.

In the last decade ecologists have been working hard to find out the basics of their reproductive biology (through captive breeding studies), movement patterns, habitat use and whether or not they are preyed upon by feral cats and foxes.

The spinifex grass (Triodia sp) in which Sandhill Dunnarts build a small nest. Photo by A. McLean

And some really important findings have emerged. We now know that Sandhill Dunnarts build small nests in the centre of the spiky spinifex, preferring plants that are 8-20 years old. Spinifex is particularly flammable, so when fire goes through the area most of the older spinifex plants (those preferred by Sandhill Dunnarts) are structurally altered. This suggests that controlled burning could be a useful management tool for the species.

Through my PhD project I’ve joined this quest for information. Over the next few years I’ll be gathering data about the ecology and movement patterns of the Sandhill Dunnarts in the Eyre Peninsula population. I am interested in discovering more about exactly where they live and why, and how they utilise their habitat.

To study these little mammals, I first have to catch them…by no means an easy thing to do. The best way is to use pitfall and Elliott (aluminium box) traps, left open overnight and checked before sunrise. This kind of work requires volunteers so if you’re interested in spending some time with these cute critters, here’s your chance.

An interesting find in the bottom of a pitfall trap always makes up for the hard work! Photo by A. McLean

Besides Sandhill Dunnarts you might be lucky enough to see Mitchell’s Hopping Mouse, the Southern Ningaui and the Little Long Tail Dunnart. And a range of reptiles like skinks, legless-lizards, snakes and dragons.  Although there are long days in the field, a magical sunrise and an interesting find in the bottom of a pitfall trap always makes up for the hard work.

So, if you would like to help with the research of Australia’s unique marsupials, and see some other amazing creatures along the way, come and help out on the next field trip!

Go to our Facebook page Sandhill Dunnart Stories or visit our blog at http://sandhilldunnartstories.ning.com to find out more.

One thought on “Sandhill Dunnart Stories

  1. Hello, I believe I found a female one of these with two fur-less babies hanging onto her, at the aerodrome of Cowell SA recently (17/1/2012). If you would like further information you may contact me at my e-mail address.

    Regards Steve Beinke

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