Tiny and Rare, a Blind Mole That ‘Swims’ Through Desert Sand Is Spotted in Australia

Typically seen just five to ten times per decade, the elusive species has now been found for the second time in six months

Small animal in a person's hand
Rangers look for tiny footprints in the sand and dig trenches to find the moles, which spend most of their lives underground. Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa via Facebook

On the surface, Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert might appear calm. But deep underground, blind moles covered in silky yellow fur are “swimming” through the sand. These elusive creatures, called northern marsupial moles (Notoryctes caurinus), spend so much of their lives below the surface that they remain largely a mystery to wildlife biologists.

Now, Aboriginal rangers have made a rare sighting of one of the animals, which are called “kakarratul” by the Martu, the traditional owners of a large swath of central Western Australia.

The Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ) Martu rangers snapped a few photos of the kakarratul and posted them on Facebook earlier this month.

This marks the second kakarratul sighting in just six months, which is unusual. Historically, people only see the species five to ten times every decade, per the Facebook post.

Northern marsupial moles are small—the one shown in the new photographs easily fits inside a ranger’s hand—typically measuring just four inches long and weighing between 1.4 and 2.1 ounces, per CNN’s Issy Ronald. They have no eyes, stubby tails and short snouts, as well as triangular claws on their front feet. Their bodies are covered in soft fur, and they primarily eat worms and grubs.

The animals are so unusual-looking that they’ve been mistaken for baby guinea pigs, says Gareth Catt, a desert wildlife expert, to BBC News’ Tiffanie Turnbull.

They’re also perfectly adapted for life in the harsh Australian outback. Rather than foraging in the hot sun, they live almost entirely underground—burrowing as far as 8.2 feet below the surface—where they use their claws and calloused noses and foreheads to move through the sand in a unique way.

“The Kakarratul is a fascinating creature that ‘swims’ through the sand of Australia’s western deserts,” according to the Facebook post. “Unlike most burrowing mammals that leave hollow tunnels behind, Kakarratul carve a path and fill it in as they go, squeezing their body forward through the sand.”

The creatures need very little oxygen to survive and can get by with just “breathing the air that flows between sand grains,” wrote Joe Benshemesh, a biologist with the National Malleefowl Recovery Group, for Australian Geographic in 2010.

“While their unusual form of locomotion is slow and laborious, they also seem tuned to a frugal life and save energy and resources by allowing their body temperature to reflect that of the surrounding sand, as if they were reptiles,” he added.

The moles periodically come to the surface, especially during periods of cool, rainy weather. But they emerge so infrequently that wildlife officials don’t have a good handle on their population size. Estimates range from 10,000 to 50,000 individuals, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which categorizes kakarratuls as a species of “least concern.”

Rangers try their best to keep tabs on kakarratuls, but they “aren’t easy to find,” says Lynette Wildridge, a senior Nyangumarta ranger, to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Erin Parke.

“We look for their tiny footprints and then dig trenches to try to find the tunnels they’ve made,” she tells the publication.

Northern marsupial moles have close relatives called southern marsupial moles (Notoryctes typhlops), or “itjaritjari” by the Anangu people. They are equally as elusive, though slightly larger. In the past, researchers have tried to learn more about southern marsupial moles by placing microphones underground.

Scientists in South Africa recently re-discovered another secretive mole species thought to be “possibly extinct,” which hadn’t had a confirmed sighting for nearly 90 years.

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