Rats and mice can get a pretty bad rap. They're generally considered to be pests, carriers of disease, and unwelcome visitors. But while many people think of marsupials as Australia's iconic animal emblems, Australia is also home to around 60 species of native rats and mice.
From the beaches to the Red Centre, in just about any ecosystem, you're bound to find a rodent that's neatly adapted to its environment. From carnivores to herbivores, tree-dwellers to water rats, it's these amazing and diverse traits that make rodents the unsung heroes of the Australian landscape.
High time, then, that these underappreciated overachievers had their turn in the spotlight as Australian Mammal of the Year.
Our native rodents have a fascinating evolutionary history, arriving on the continent in two waves - the "Old World" rodents dispersed from Asia over 4 million years ago while sea levels were low, and the "new endemics" that followed a few million years later. Since that time, our native rodents have become established in just about every habitat across the country, from the arid deserts to the rainforests to the coasts.
The key to their success is rodents' ability to diversify and adapt. Recent research has shown that, despite the large number of rodent species in Australia, their skull shapes are relatively similar, which may explain why they are able to hop from one niche to the next with relative ease.
An excellent example of this flexibility is the rakali, a semi-aquatic rat that grows up to weigh over a kilogram, making it one of the largest rodents in Australia. Not only is the rakali equipped with webbed feet and water-resistant fur that allow it to thrive in waterways, it has even been observed to consume the toxic and invasive cane toad. With surgical precision, the Rakali flip the toads to remove and eat the heart and liver, avoiding the poisonous glands.
Another large rodent, the black-footed tree-rat, prefers a drier habitat - it has evolved to live in forested areas, nesting in tree hollows during the day and foraging at night. Its sharp claws allow it to climb trees with ease.
At the other end of the size spectrum, the tiny pookila, or New Holland mouse, is about the same size as an invasive house mouse but much less stinky. You won't find it under your roof, though - the pookila prefers open heathland and coastal areas, where it plays a vital role in seed dispersal.
To help them survive and thrive in this variety of habitats, Australia's native rodents have also developed some pretty neat social strategies. The greater stick-nest rat might not be able to burrow or climb trees particularly well, but they do know how to build a very fine castle. They construct huge nests out of sticks and dried grass that they share with their families. When the male offspring reach maturity, they head off into the world to look for mates, while the females stay in or near the nest they were born in.
Golden-backed tree-rats are no run-of-the-mill rat that you saw last week raiding your compost. They're a mysterious and curious rodent native of the north - one that's a little bit punk, a little bit kung-fu, and definitely has a taste for fine dining.
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