Swimming Beneath Sand, It’s ‘the Hardest of All Animals to Find’

If you saw a northern marsupial mole, you might be surprised. Known to the First Nations peoples in the Western Desert of Australia as the kakarratul, it is eyeless and has shaggy golden fur. Just four inches from nose to tail, the animal would fit in the palm of your hand. And unlike the mole species of North America, it is a marsupial.

But you probably wouldn’t see one: While the animals are plentiful, sightings remain extremely rare because northern marsupial moles live in tunnels beneath sand dunes, navigating them with a swimming-like motion using flipper-like front feet.

“This is the hardest of all the animals to find,” said Denzel Hunter, an Indigenous ranger who works to survey and conserve wildlife in the lands of the Nyangumarta people. “Every time we go out looking for northern marsupial moles, we find evidence that they’re there. But I’ve never seen one.”

Earlier this month, Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa Martu rangers found a kakarratul in the Great Sandy Desert, nearly 1,000 miles northeast of Perth. Their photographs of the creature, which has been spotted only a handful of times in the past decade, expand scientific knowledge of the species as well as of the wider desert regions that make up close to one-third of Australia’s land mass.

The find also highlights the value of the 60 desert ranger groups that oversee much of Australia’s national system of protected areas.

“It’s once you start digging into the detail of that country with the people who know it best that you really start to get an appreciation of the place,” said Gareth Catt, who as program manager of the Indigenous Desert Alliance has worked extensively with ranger programs. “It’s the Indigenous rangers that have that enduring connection and are best placed to understand and look after that country.”

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