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What is a Marsupial Mole?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2016
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A marsupial mole is a mammal in the order Notoryctemorphia, and as the common name of this creature suggests, it is a marsupial. Scientists have identified two species of marsupial mole, the Northern and Southern marsupial mole, and both are considered endangered. You may have difficulty telling these species apart in the field, as they are extremely similar in physical appearance, but they have genetic differences which justify their classification into two species.

Like other marsupials, the marsupial mole does not create a placenta to nourish a developing embryo after fertilization. Instead, the female makes a yolk-like sac which provides sustenance to the embryo for a brief period of time, after which it is born in an underdeveloped and premature form. The tiny shrimp-like embryo works its way up the mother's body until it reaches a special pouch called the marsupium and it latches on inside the pouch to finish developing.

These shy creatures are extremely unusual, even for marsupials. The marsupial mole spends most of its life underground, constantly burrowing in search of food and living primarily alone. After heavy rains, these animals sometimes surface. Their bodies are specially adapted to digging, with cone-shaped leathery heads and fused neck vertebrae, powerful front feet, cigar-shaped bodies, and stuffy tails. Most are pale cream to golden brown in color, with soft, silky fur which allows them to slip through the tunnels they dig with ease.

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Because marsupial moles are difficult to see and study in the wild, they were a subject of a great deal of controversy until the 20th century, when people began to make concrete observations about their lifestyles and biology. At one point, scientists actually thought that they were egg-laying monotremes like the platypus, and people suggested that the marsupial mole might be a form of missing link in Australian evolution. Further study revealed that they were, in fact, marsupials, although they appeared to be the last vestiges of a once larger order within the marsupials.

Marsupial moles are an interesting example of what is known as convergent evolution. They resemble moles found in other regions of the world, suggesting that the role of a burrowing insectivore is a universal niche, and in the unique environment of Australia, they evolved to fill this niche. Sadly, due to habitat depletion and predation, the marsupial mole is considered an endangered species. Scientists hope to learn more about these fascinating creatures to ensure that they can preserve them for future generations to puzzle over and enjoy.

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