Look at this mole. No, really, look at it because you'll probably never see one above ground like this again.
Against all odds, a group of rangers from Western Australia's Kiwirrkurra community came across one of the rarest marsupials in the world last week. And, thankfully, they also caught it all on camera.
The northern marsupial mole (Notoryctes caurinus) is a habitually subterranean-dwelling animal that's as beautiful as it is blind (literally, because its eyelids are fused shut and it also lacks optical nerves). This five-inch-long flaxen critter is known to aborigines as the "karrkaratul," and is only found in northwestern dune deserts of Western Australia. Most of its life is spent underneath the sand feeding on insects and larvae, and because the karrkaratul has low oxygen requirements, it rarely ever appears above ground.
Karrkaratuls have been mystifying biologists for several decades now with their curious physiology and seemingly indescribable taxonomy. To make matters even more complicated, these unique marsupials are only sighted a mere five to 10 times per decade. Conservationists know so little about the karrkaratul that their official threat assessment, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (which, at one point, listed the marsupial as "endangered"), is now simply "data deficient."
One of the lucky rangers who spotted the karrkaratul described the event on the Tjamu Tjamu Aboriginal Corporation's Facebook page. Kate Crossing, a Kiwirrkurra Indigenous Protected Area coordinator, remarked that they were driving along a bush track when the marsupial mole ran out in front of them.
"Yalti yelled out 'karrkaratul' and jumped out as I stopped the car. We all crowded round as Yalti held this beautiful creature carefully in her hands, its powerful front feet trying to dig to safety. Walimpirri told us how he'd last seen one many years ago near Kiwirrkurra, and some of the Rangers said they'd never seen one."
Although the karrkaratul has been featured in Aboriginal mythology for many thousands of years, its evolutionary origins became a hotly debated topic in the scientific community when European colonists first misclassified the animal in 1888 as an egg-laying mammal, or monotreme. The ambiguous ground-dweller would later be recategorized as a relative of placental mammals, mostly because it closely resembles Africa's Cape golden moles (Chrysochloris asiatica). At times, the karrkaratul was declared an offshoot of Diprotodontia, the order that includes most living marsupials. But it wasn't until the 1980s that molecular level analysis would confirm the karrkaratul was indeed a marsupial, but had diverged from the lineage of all living marsupials some 64 million years ago.
In simple terms, the karrkaratul is a rare example of truly convergent evolution—combining helpful adaptations from both placental moles and distantly-related marsupials.
Most recently, scientists discovered 20 million-year-old fossil evidence of the karrkaratul's direct ancestor, Yalkaparidon coheni, in north Queensland in 2010. The exciting finding revealed the animal had not originated in the Australian desert, as many biologists had suspected, but instead evolved for life in a long-gone rainforest.
"I had made the assumption that there was some unknown desert on the continent that must have been there to explain the special desert adaptations of the marsupial moles," Mike Archer, a professor at the University of New South Wales, told National Geographic. "I was dead wrong."
Today, conservationists are working with indigenous communities to gather as much data as possible on the karrkaratul. And while the species isn't listed under Australia's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, it's believed to be threatened by wildfires, and predation from feral cats, foxes, and dingoes. Biologists at the South Australian Museum are currently conducting genetic analysis to better illustrate the animal's evolutionary history.
As for the now-internet-famous karrkaratul, Crossing says she's just thankful for the opportunity to see one in the wild.
"After a few minutes of wonder we gently put it down away from the road and watched in awe as it dug straight down and disappeared."