WA’s rare rakali is a clever creature

Patricia BoltBusselton Dunsborough Times
A Rakali is a rare Water Rat found in the South West
Camera IconA Rakali is a rare Water Rat found in the South West Credit: Busselton-Dunsborough Times, Supplied

How many of you have heard of a rakali (Hydromys chrysogaster)?

What about the Australian water rat or beaver rat?

No, not many I wager.

And when you hear the term ‘rat’ you really don’t want to read any more, but that would be misguided. Because this is no ordinary rat and it is not introduced as so often assumed but estimated to be living in Australia for over 3 million years.

Yes, it is a rodent, a very intelligent one, but if we look at the role it plays in our environment maybe it could be considered equivalent to the European otter.

We only have two amphibious mammals in Australia, the rakali and the platypus. And it is the only one we have in the South West of WA.

Like the platypus it is found in bodies of permanent water such as streams and dams, but unlike the platypus it is also at home in salt and brackish water. They are about the same size when mature, up to 1.3 kilograms; they both have webbed hind legs, a tail that serves as a rudder, dense whiskers, small ears and eyes high on their head and glossy soft fur. In fact, it was the quality of their fur that nearly led to their demise.

They were extensively hunted for their pelts in the fur trade, especially during the Depression years when thousands of animals were killed yearly, and almost became extinct until protective legislation was introduced in 1943. Currently they are fully protected throughout Australia.

The intelligent rakali has an ability to safely consume the invasive cane toad. It took only two years after the cane toad invaded its territory in WA’s north before it worked it out. With almost surgical precision the rakali strategically removes the toxic organs, and even the toxic skin and muscle on the hind legs, before proceeding to feed.

So what else does our elusive water rat or rakali feed on? It is an opportunistic feeder so has a varied diet including frogs, lizards, crustaceans, turtle eggs and even the black and brown rat which impact greatly on our grain growing farmers. However, it is its love of yabbies, marron and fish that largely results in it being killed illegally, often in the Australian opera house fishing traps. These nets are used extensively in freshwater dams and waterways but are not discriminate in what is netted.

If you are lucky enough to sight our rakali please report on the Platypus Conservatory website which tracks both platypus and rakali. If you have good photos to share, head to the Rakali Awareness Day and Sightings Facebook page.

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