Mouse matchmakers bring native back from the brink

A tiny endangered native mouse has a big future thanks to a new conservation breeding program that’s been launched at Melbourne Zoo.

The Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio announced a new breeding program which pairs Pookila – coupling the native mice to regenerate the wild population.

The Victorian Pookila Captive Breeding and Reintroduction Program will see genetically diverse breeding pairs matched and housed at Melbourne Zoo and Moonlit Sanctuary with the eventual goal of releasing the offspring.

Derived from the Ngarigo word for “mouse” – bugila – Pookila was adopted by the federal government in 1995 as the Indigenous name for the species formerly known as the New Holland Mouse.

The small, burrowing rodents, native to south-eastern Australia, are endangered in Victoria. Similar in size to the introduced House Mouse, they can be distinguished by their large eyes, rounded ears, a bi-coloured pink and dusky brown tail, and the absence of “mousey” odour.

Seven of the known Victorian populations have become extinct in the last decades, with sites shrinking to just five across the Gippsland region, including at Wilsons Promontory National Park.

The population decline is due to habitat loss including from drought and bushfire, feral predators, competition from non-native rodent species and loss of genetic diversity.

To combat this, a team of scientists has “paired” – specially matched based on where they were collected, their genetic diversity and behaviour – 22 of the 3000 mice that remain in Victoria.

The program aims to breed more genetically healthy and resilient mice that can be released into the wild, strengthening existing populations and creating new ones.

“We’re making record investments into biodiversity so our unique native species – big and small – can thrive in the wild for generations to come,” Ms D’Ambrosio said.

“We’re proud to use the Ngarigo name for this adorable native mouse and to be investing in its future.”

Zoos Victoria Native Rodent Biologist Dr Phoebe Burns said wild populations of the Pookila had crashed in recent decades.

“Here in Victoria, we have probably only got a few thousand Pookila left in the wild, and that is quite a catastrophic decline,” she said.

Working with our conservation partners we want to boost numbers in the wild back up to a sustainable level where they can be safe into the future.

“We are going to be pairing our animals based on how genetically different they are so that their babies are going to have the best, most diverse genetics and then we can reintroduce those animals back out into the wild to boost genetics in the wild populations.”

“The mice will be housed here at Melbourne Zoo and at Moonlit Sanctuary down in Pearcedale. So, we will have two great facilities where we can breed the mice and build up our numbers so that we have animals to release back into the wild.”

 

“It is really exciting to be able to make a difference in the long-term conservation of this gorgeous native species.”

 

Moonlit Sanctuary founder and director Michael Johnson said his team was looking forward to working with the Pookila.

“Moonlit Sanctuary is thrilled to invest in the recovery of another threatened Victorian species,” Mr Johnson said.   •

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