Recently whilst pottering around in the backyard I saw what I first thought was a ringtail possum in the undergrowth. That was until it scampered across the open yard at a pace a ringtail could only dream of attaining on the ground. It was the biggest rat I had ever seen and it seems to have taken up residence in the ponds (i.e. bathtubs and containers I have set-up for fish and frogs) in my yard.
Since then I have seen it regularly and it doesn’t look like the rats I usually see in the urban environment; it was huge at around 1.5 kg and it also had a fluffy tail tipped with white and a slightly golden underbelly. I’ve seen these guys before when fishing so after the first good look at it I knew it was a native water rat (also known as the rakali). That’s where my knowledge on the species ended.
After a bit of a dig around, I feel like I have a basic understanding of the species. The rakali is a semi aquatic native rodent and the scientific name (Hydromys chrysogaster) means golden-bellied water mouse. The species fulfils a role similar to that of an European otter and doesn’t carry the nasties associated with our invasive rat species (diseases, parasites etc.). Most Australians are unaware of the rakali or mistake it for a black rat and treat it in a similar manner. The rakali has been trapped, poisoned and killed throughout its range, often in the mistaken belief that it is a huge black rat.
The persecution of the rakali is a shame and seems to be counter-productive if the intention is to rid the area of disease carrying rats. Professor Peter Banks, a rakali researcher at Sydney uni says high numbers of rakali seem to result in low numbers of the invasive black rat. That sounds like a good thing to me. I’ve also seen lots of claims that this animal is one of the few native predators of the cane toad and there seems to be anecdotal evidence at least, that this is true. So next time you see a huge rat, take a second look! You might be lucky enough to be seeing the rakali.
If you are interested in finding out more about this interesting native than it is worth taking a look at the embedded radio national interview of rakali researcher Professor Peter Banks (you can find the full interview here) and also taking a look at the citizen science project below.
WWF-Australia and the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife are conducting a Rakali Community Survey at present. If you have seen a rakali in Western Australia please go here to find out more about the project and how you can be of assistance. Any sightings in the Eastern states can be directed to the Australian Platypus Conservancy (http://www.platypus.asn.au/ )