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Landmark rediscovery of threatened native rodents at Victoria’s Wilsons Promontory

Written by Javed Iqbal

A native rat vulnerable to extinction and known for its chubby cheeks has been found at Victoria’s Wilsons Promontory for the first time in three decades.

The broad-toothed rat, or Tooarrana, is a tiny rodent historically found throughout southeastern Australia.

The catastrophic Black Summer bushfires tore through much of its habitat in the Victorian Highlands, but studies showed the population was in significant decline in the decades before that.

The little rat has been vulnerable to predation by cats and foxes, habitat loss from an abundance of grazing animals, bushfires and climate change.

A broad-toothed rat
The rat is an indication that efforts to keep invasive species away from Wilson’s Promontory may be beginning to succeed.(Provided by: Zoos Victoria)

It had not been seen at Wilson’s Prom for 32 years.

A team of researchers, led by Zoos Victoria biologist Phoebe Burns and Parks Victoria ecologist Brooke Love, managed to track and capture one of the rats at the headland before releasing it back into the wild.

“It’s a very exciting time,” Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said.

“And it actually underlines the importance of us maintaining Wilsons Prom as a safe haven for many of our threatened species.”

Two scientists are kneeling in the grass with a small trap.
Scientists say the discovery offers renewed hope for the future of the tiny native animal.(Provided by: Zoos Victoria)

The rodent is known for having chubby cheeks, a flat face and short tail.

It is also known for its bright green droppings, which helped researchers find the rat during surveys of the promontory, south-east of Melbourne.

“Of course we thought they no longer existed, and it certainly hasn’t been discovered [at Wilsons Prom] for more than three decades,” Ms. D’Ambrosio said.

“But some really clever scientific work that has been done by our dedicated scientists in the field … discovered that one of them is still alive and thriving.”

The rat feeds on grass and grubs in cool, wet habitats.

A broad-toothed rat
The rat’s diet of green grass and grain helped the researchers track its feces.(Provided by: Zoos Victoria)

Native rats are essential to many ecosystems and can be indicators of environmental change.

The rat found by researchers is an indication that the work to keep invasive species away from the Prom may be starting to succeed.

The State Government said the discovery underlined the importance of a plan to turn 50,000 hectares of Wilsons Prom into a sanctuary.

“This is great news for the Prom Sanctuary project,” Parks Victoria’s Biodiversity Science Manager Mark Antos said in a statement.

“It provides an additional reason to control introduced predators and grazing animals to help protect this unique species and give it the best chance of survival.”

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Javed Iqbal

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