Numbat Myrmecobius fasciatus is a unique and specialized marsupial, the only member of the family Myrmecobiidae in the order Dasyuromorphia, the carnivorous marsupials. Once widespread across southern Australia, it is now restricted to eucalypt woodlands in the extreme southwest.

About the size of a small fox, with a stout muzzle and long bushy tail, it feeds primarily on termites. Although it has strong claws, it cannot open the concrete-like termite mounds, so it must search for termite activity during the day. In the Aussie winter this is mid-day, but during the summer it is active early and late in the day. There is no other mammal on earth that is anything like this diurnal marsupial.

Photos 6 Aug 2008 at Dryandra Forest, Western Australia, Australia

Finding and photographing (hopefully!) this rare and special mammal was a prime focus of our August 2008 trip to southwestern Australia. Frank O'Connor's web site had useful tips for finding them at Dryandra Forest, where a remnant population still exists; "Project Numbat" had information about life history and reintroduction projects. We planned a 3-day visit to Dryandra (right), visiting daily from our motel in the town of Narrogin, about a half-hour drive to the southeast.

The Dryandra Forest, now proposed as a National Park, is a growing reserve of parcels of remnant wondoo eucalypt woodlands. Well-maintained dirt roads criss-cross the forest, from broad main drives (like Tomingley Road, above) to smaller dirt tracks. The forest is excellent for the eucalypt birds of southwestern Australia, including a number of endemics, and has recently become the site of major reintroduction projects for several endangered mammal. One project is called Barna Mia, a huge fenced enclosure to keep out non-native foxes and cats but otherwise open woods, that can be visited at night with a guide toting a red-light spotlight; we did so and very much enjoyed that experience. We also saw Western Gray Kangaroo Macropus fuliginosus, Tammar Wallaby Macropus eugenii, Bush-tailed Bettong [Woylie] Bettongia penicillata, and Common Brushtail Possum Trichosurus vulpecula (a unique form with white-tipped tail is here) during night drives along these tracks through the forest.

The Numbat, though, is found only during the day, and only with luck. Each home range is large — over 350 acres (=150 hectares) — and each Numbat forages alone, so the odds of seeing one is comparatively small. We took several hikes through the forest but our search for Numbat was focused mostly on slowly driving the roads. We found evidence at several sites of recent termite activity (above left), and found what looked to be recent Numbat tracks (above right), so we drove these roads several times. From this evidence, and suggestions from Frank O'Connor, we worked Tomingley, Gura, Baaluc, Norman, Marri, Norn, Mangart (site of the termite activity, above), and Patonga roads over our three-day search. We often circled back through Lions Dryandra Woodlands Village, site of the caretaker's home and cottages at can be rented by those with camping gear, as a Numbat had been seen there a couple days earlier at mid-day.

It was about 3 p.m. on our final afternoon, some 17 hours into our search, near the junction of Marri and Tomingley roads, when a Numbat ran across the road in front of our car. It carried its tail high and cocked up over its back as it trotted by as if on a mission. We stopped the car and thought about trying to follow it into the woods, but before we could get out of the car, the Numbat ran back across the road and hopped up on a log (right; a bad shot taken through the windshield). It posed upright, like a prairie-dog, for a bit, and then disappeared into a hollow log. I jockeyed the car forward to await its reappearance, but suddenly we noticed the Numbat had come out of the other end of the log, which was obviously hollow throughout. We backed up slowly and Rita was able to get some video, while I managed two shots (top of page) before it ran off into the woods.

Perhaps I don't need to say this was a heart-pounding experience!

Later in our 2008 trip we visited Desert Park in Alice Springs, which is an open-air zoo focusing on Australia biota. Among the many large flight-cages for birds, and a wonderful 'nocturnal house' that permits one to see several rare night critters, is a large enclosure with a Numbat.

These final photos were taken of the Numbat there. During our visit, the captive Numbat engaged in several behaviors we had seen in the wild — such as running through hollow logs or standing upright — and several we did not see, including sun-bathing (right) and running its long, sticky tongue. Numbat has very ineffective teeth, and it uses that tongue to eat 20,000 termites a day. It has an ability to locate termite galleries by scent, and sniffs for them while standing on its hind legs (Cronin 1991, Menkhorst & Knight 2004).

Literature cited:

Cronin, Leonard. 1991. Key Guide to Australian Mammals. Illustrations by Marion Westmacott. Reed Books, Kew, Vict., Australia.

Menkhorst, Peter, and Frank Knight. 2004. A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia. 2d ed. Oxford Univ. Press, South Melbourne, Australia.

Page created 30 Aug 2008
all photos & text © 2008 Don Roberson