Name(s): Pookila (Pseudomys novaehollandiae), New Holland mouse
Mate: Length: 65-88mm, plus 81-107mm tail. Weight: 12-28g
Eating pattern: Omnivore, including seeds, leaves, fungi, invertebrates
Habitat: Partially distributed in mainly coastal habitats from Victoria to southeastern Queensland, plus northeastern Tasmania and Flinders Island.
State of conservation: threatened
Superpower: Pookilas are micro-engineers – despite their small size, they can create intricate burrows in sandy soils in which they nest during the day, raise their young and stay safe during fires.
At first, it can be difficult to convince people to like native mice. Say “mouse” and people conjure up images of their homes being invaded by stinky little pests and farmers battling the squiggly carpets of grain eaters. Invasive rodents in Australia have fought their way forward, leaving little room for the nearly 70 remarkable and unique species of native rats and mice that have shaped the Australian continent. Far from the stubborn and invasive house mice and black rats that humans regularly deal with, most of our native rodents are a sensitive and delicate bunch. And we’ve already lost 13 species to extinction.
The mouse I’m here to spew doesn’t smell at all, it will never show up in your house, and if it was good enough at breeding it to hit plague proportions, my job wouldn’t have to exist.
The pookila (also known as the New Holland mouse) is a small native rodent species found in mainly coastal heath vegetation in southeastern Australia. As much as it pains me to use the house mouse as a reference point, Pookilas are the same size, but are easily distinguished by their sandy brown fur, larger eyes, beautiful two-tone tails (white/pink below, gray brown on top), no stench, and are over generally much fluffier and sweeter.
In Victoria, we lost them in seven of the 12 historic sites, leaving behind a disjointed 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 food shortages during drought.
This year I started collecting individuals for a Victorian captive breeding and reintroduction program at Melbourne Zoo and Moonlit Sanctuary. It’s not a choice we’ve made lightly – my heart breaks every time I pick one from the wild – but it’s a necessary step to save the pookila in Victoria. We need more mice and they need 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 related mate, they would still be more closely related than normal full siblings. We match pairs from different populations so that we can release their genetically healthier offspring back into the wild to improve diversity.
Why fight so hard to save a species? Aside from their role in contributing to healthy ecosystems through soil renewal and the proliferation of seeds and fungal spores (plus our fundamental responsibility to not force species into extinction), pooilas are just really beautiful. Their unique personalities still amaze me even after eight years and a thousand interactions. Now that we have some in captivity with cameras watching them 24/7, their individualities are even more amazing. There are the curious and the nervous, early risers and late sleepers, finicky decorators and diligent diggers; some choose to sleep in nest boxes, others dig their own burrows or create cozy leaf-lined bark caves.
The pookila may seem like a modest pick for Australian Mammal of the Year, but that’s just because you haven’t met a spicy one yet.
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