Craig is a Melbourne writer with an interest in natural history. He has been a museum volunteer in Birds and Mammals for several years.
Today is the 150th anniversary of the day Alfred Howitt left Melbourne to search for Burke and Wills. By the time the explorers had returned to the Dig Tree in April 1861 there had been no news of them for six months. Public pressure had mounted and the exploration committee responsible sent out Howitt as leader of the Victorian Contingent Party. They would in fact discover the fate of Burke’s party in September that year.
Subsequently Howitt gathered a small but interesting collection of natural history specimens that were delivered to Museum Victoria. Only two mammal species were included: one of two known species of stick-nest rat Leporillus sp. [pictured in a cheeky pose here as a mount by an unknown nineteenth century preparator], and the White-footed Rabbit Rat Conilurus albipes. The Lesser Stick-nest Rat and the White-footed Rabit Rat were once widespread across parts of Australia but have long since been regarded as extinct.
Stick-nest rat Leporillus sp. collected by Alfred Howitt.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
But there is some good news about rats! The species that the Burke and Wills Expedition knew best was the Long-haired or Plague Rat Rattus villosissimus. The ‘plague’ epithet came not from its carrying any disease, but its tendency to population irruptions reaching plague proportions, as we are currently witnessing with the introduced House Mouse Mus musculus. Burke and Wills travelled through the Channel Country after good rains, similar to the current environment. The rats swarmed over their first camp at Cooper Creek, attacking explorers and their supplies so relentlessly that they were forced to move to the site that subsequently became known for the Dig Tree.
The Long-haired Rat had hardly been sighted since the 1970s, especially during the long drought, and was feared to be heading for extinction. Now there are recent reports that the House Mouse is not the only rodent on the move. Zoologists are delighted that Long-haired Rats are now beeing seen in numbers again in Central Australia, including Alice Springs township. At least one of our native rodents is still out there.
Australian Dictionary of Biography: Alfred William Howitt (1830-1908)