these masterful mice are micro-engineers

Names): Pokila (Pseudomys novaehollandiae), New Holland mouse

Band: Rodents

Cut: Length: 65-88 mm, plus 81-107 mm heel. Weight: 12-28g

Diet: Omnivorous, including seeds, leaves, fungi, invertebrates

Habitat: Patchy distribution in mainly coastal habitats from Victoria to southeast Queensland, plus northeast Tasmania and Flinders Island.

Conservation state: Endangered

Superpower: Pookilas are micro-engineers – despite their small size, they can create complex burrow systems in sandy soils in which they nest during the day, raise their young and stay safe during fires.

Pookila. Credit: Tim Bawden

At first, convincing people to like native mice can be a tough sell. Say “mouse” and people conjure up images of their homes overrun with stinky little pests and farmers battling mats of grain eaters. Invasive rodents in Australia have made their way into our minds and left little room for the nearly 70 remarkable and unique species of native rats and mice that have been shaped by the Australian continent. A far cry from the tenacious and invasive house mice and black rats that people encounter on a regular basis, most of our native rodents are sensitive and delicate. And we have already lost 13 species to extinction.

The mouse I’m here to spruik doesn’t smell at all, it’ll never show up in your house, and if it were good enough at breeding to plague proportions, my job wouldn’t need to exist.

The pookila (aka the New Holland mouse) is a small native rodent species found in the predominantly heather coastal vegetation of southeastern Australia. Although it pains me to use the house mouse as a point of reference, pookilas are similar in size but easily distinguished by their sandy brown fur, larger eyes, gorgeous two-tone tails (white/pink below, gray -brown on top), no stench, and are overall much chewier and sweeter.

In Victoria, we lost them in seven of 12 historical locations, leaving a disjunct distribution of genetically isolated and vulnerable mice. In addition to habitat loss and fragmentation, they are highly susceptible to predation by cats and foxes, and to food shortages during drought.

Pookila. Credit: Doug Beckers

This year I started collecting individuals for a Victorian captive breeding and reintroduction program based at Melbourne Zoo and Moonlit Sanctuary. It’s not a choice we made lightly – my heart breaks every time I take one from the wild – but it’s a necessary step to save the pookila in Victoria. We need more mice, and we need them to be genetically diverse. For example, the pookila dating pool at Wilsons Promontory is so limited that even if a mouse chose the most distant mate possible, they would still be more closely related than normal siblings. We match pairs from different populations so that we can release their genetically healthier offspring into the wild to improve diversity.

Why fight so hard to save a species? In addition to their role in contributing to healthy ecosystems through soil renewal and the dispersal of seeds and fungal spores (as well as our fundamental responsibility not to drive species to extinction), pookilas are really really adorable. Their unique personalities still amaze me, even after eight years and a thousand interactions. Now that we have them in captivity with cameras watching them 24/7, their individualities are even more amazing. There are the curious and nervous, early risers and late sleepers, picky decorators and industrious diggers; some choose to sleep in nest boxes, others dig their own burrows or create cozy leaf-lined bark caves.

The pookila might seem like an unassuming choice for Australian mammal of the year, but that’s just because you haven’t encountered a feisty one yet.

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