On the night of Jan. 5th, 1905, a fearful storm raged on the South and South West coast of England. A vessel was seen making desperate struggles to keep her course. She was, however, lost to sight and the eager eyes watching, could see no more. Next morning some fishermen searching among a quantity of wreckage, discovered the mannikin, known as Dick Trelawny, tied to a beam of timber.
Washed up on the coast of Penzance in Cornwall, the fishermen who initially found Dick Trelawny eventually became wary of him and came to think of him as something sent to them by the Devil. He went to live with an old lady and, so the story goes, it was there he remained until Captain Jack Neville came across him.
Captain Neville said that he recognised the “importance of this little mite from a scientific and physiological standpoint…“and, after several Doctors looked him over, they came to the conclusion that Dick Trelawny was between 48 and 75 years of age, weighed over four kilos and was about 65 cms tall.
He initially spoke in a “guttural tongue” unable to be deciphered by linguists but soon learnt English and French.
His features, though pensive, are constantly illumined by a sweet smile which, with his merry little laugh and winning eyes, make him a most interesting and pleasant study.
He was given the name ‘The Cornish Pixie’ and agreed to go with Captain Neville to be exhibited around the world.
Last week I came across an ABC news article about the sighting of a marsupial mole (Notoryctes Caurinus) by Kiwirrkurra Rangers from the Tjamu Tjamu Aboriginal Corporation. Known as the karrkaratul, it spends most of its life underground and is rarely seen. Reading about the mole and watching the Corporation’s amazing video (above) led me to think about Trove. I wondered what information on the marsupial mole could be found within the historical newspapers. A perfect post for Trove Tuesday!
While the Indigenous people would’ve known about the mole for thousands of years, European people first came across a similar species (Notoryctes Typhlops) in 1888 when Mr Benham (working on Idracowra Station in South Australia) found it amongst the sandhills. Unfortunately for this poor little mole, it was killed and sent to the Adelaide Museum.
Hailed as an important discovery in Australian natural history, the mole was first reconstituted and stuffed and then investigated by Dr Stirling (a lecturer on physiology at Adelaide University). Notes were written for a presentation to the Royal Society of South Australia where Dr Stirling stated that it was “evidently an underground burrowing animal, something like a Cape mole (Chrysochloris), but differing in many respects.” He further concluded that the condition of the eyes indicated nocturnal habits while the teeth and remaining contents in the bowel indicated that it fed on insects.
The discovery of a new creature for scientists to study (and the desire to have a better specimen that hadn’t been beaten to death) set off a mole hunting frenzy within central Australia. Less than a year later three more moles (presumed dead) were sent to Adelaide for further study.
Throughout this time Western Australian newspapers barely reported on the discovery of the marsupial mole. Not to be completely excluded however, by September 1900 it was noted that the Perth Museum had been gifted their own specimen; a donation from Professor Baldwin Spencer M.A.
Fast forward seven years to March 1907 and it would appear that the species, Notoryctes Caurinus (karrkaratul) found mostly within Western Australia’s desert country had been captured by Mr P. Trotman.
The Aboriginal man accompanying Mr Trotman wanted him to release the karrkaratul back into the wild but, he did not. The mole was instead killed, preserved in spirits and taken to the Perth Museum.
The first meeting of the Western Australian Natural History Society was held a month later at the Museum’s lecture room. The West Australian reported on the events of the meeting and dedicated a considerable portion of the article to the discovery of the karrkaratul. It was stated that “this proved to be the first specimen of the mole that had been collected in Western Australia.“
Several more specimens were collected by Mr S. J. Pryor of Wollal [Wallal] in 1910 and 1911 which were both sent to the Perth Museum but, interestingly, the 1911 specimen was noted as being the second mole found within WA with no mention as to what happened to the 1910 specimen.
Initially, the moles found within South Australia and Western Australia were thought to be the same species with the scientific name, Notoryctes Typhlops, applied to both. The two types of marsupial mole are considered to be almost identical (it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart in the field) and it wasn’t until 1921 that the karrkaratul (Notoryctes Caurinus) was listed as a separate species.
Throughout the 1920s many more articles about the karrkaratul were printed in the newspapers in order to provide readers with information about the marsupial mole with respect to its appearance and habits.
An interesting snippet from 1927 provided details with respect to the karrkaratul’s tracks (visible in the video at the top of this post) which were said to be like that of small bob-tailed goanna but without the clear footprints.
The rarity at seeing the karrkaratul in the wild unfortunately did not quell the appetite for obtaining specimens. In 1940 Mr Aitken of Wallal sent one to the Perth Museum and, two years later, he sent another three. After this point however the articles continue to be informative and there appears to be no other mention of specimens being collected in Western Australia (of course that doesn’t mean that they weren’t).
Since these early newspaper articles, the fascination with the karrkaratul has not dimmed. The images and video taken by the Tjamu Tjamu Aboriginal Corporation have been shared on Facebook hundreds and thousands of times and there’s been lots of online news articles published (both Australian and International). A creature completely unknown to me, it certainly piqued my curiosity and led me to write this blog post. I guess it’s hard not to be fascinated by the rather adorable karrkaratul. In a world where everything is nearly always known and visible, the karrkaratul has managed to remain invisible and to this day, still maintains a good deal of its mystery.
1888 ‘A DISCOVERY IN AUSTRALIAN NATURAL HISTORY.’, The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil (Melbourne, Vic. : 1873 – 1889), 29 November, p. 183. , viewed 14 Jun 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article63225142