|Habitat and Ecology:|
Itjaritjari inhabit sand dunes and adjacent swales where there is suitable deep, loose sand. They spend almost their entire lives underground, only very occasionally coming to the surface, and only remaining on the surface for a short time. Most specimens and sightings come from animals found on the surface. However, it appears they rarely come to the surface, which makes them less prone to predation by Red Foxes, Cats and other predators.
When underground, marsupial moles virtually swim through the soil. The sand is packed in behind the animal as it progresses and no empty tunnel is formed. Nevertheless, where one has passed through a soil profile, an oval shaped differentiation in soil texture and colour can be seen (Johnson and Walton 1989). Where Itjaritjari are known to occur, their underground backfilled tunnels are often very common and these may represent an important source of soil disturbance (biopedturbation) (Whitford and Kay 1999). Evidence of 30-60 kilometres of backfilled tunnel per hectare is usual in these areas (Benshemesh 2004), representing about 40-80 m3 of turned-over soil per hectare, or up to 1% of the soil within one metre of the surface.
Itjaritjari are insectivorous, capturing their prey while underground. Examination of gut contents of preserved specimens and of the habitat they occupy, has revealed a generalist diet comprising two main prey types: social insects (ants and termites) and the larvae of beetles. Ants, termites and beetle larvae were also the main invertebrates captured in soil cores on sandridges; other invertebrates combined contributed <5% to abundance (Pavey et al. 2012).
Recent studies suggest that marsupial moles may be common prey items of larger mammalian predators. Paltridge (1998) found remains of marsupial moles in predator scats at five of her six study sites in the Tanami Desert. Her study revealed that 10% of Red Fox scats, 3% of Cat scats and 5% of Dingo scats contained signs of moles (n= 82, 111 and 59 respectively). Signs of marsupial moles have also been found in Red Fox and Dingo scats from the Anangu-Pitjantjatjara / Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia (Benshemesh 2004), and in other areas of the Northern Territory (Paltridge 1998), although not as frequently. Benshemesh et al. (2010) examined nearly 1800 predator scats from both southern and northern dunefields and found little difference between the likelihood of finding marsupial mole signs in scats of Red Foxes, cats and Dingoes, but major differences between northern and southern areas. In southern areas inhabited by Itjaritjari, only 1% of predator scats contained traces of marsupial moles, compared with 8% in northern areas largely inhabited by Kakarratul, a difference they attributed to the higher abundance of marsupial moles in the north and shallower burrowing habits. It is uncertain whether these predators take marsupial moles on the surface or dig them up, or indeed whether they are actually killing moles or taking dead animals. Dead or severely debilitated moles have been recorded on the surface on several occasions (Benshemesh 2004), but it seems most likely that these predators prey upon living moles that are on or just under the surface. R. T. Maurice, who travelled widely in the Great Victoria Desert between 1897 and 1903, reported that local Aboriginal people were able to capture Itjaritjari after hearing them when they were under the surface (Gara 1996 cited in Benshemesh 2004), and larger mammalian predators may do likewise. Benshemesh et al. (2010) found some evidence that Dingoes, at least, hunted marsupial moles in northern areas, where it was common to find the remains of more than one marsupial mole in each scat. On the surface, marsupial moles are vulnerable to a wide range of predators including birds of prey, snakes and goannas.
A study of the metabolic physiology of a single Kakarratul concluded that it differs in some aspects of thermal and metabolic physiology from other marsupials, most likely reflecting its almost completely fossorial existence (Withers et al. 2000). Itjaritjari are likely to be similar.