Backyard Buddies
Water Rat

Photo: Ed Dunens

Water Rat

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The Water Rat, also known by the Aboriginal name Rakali, is a top predator in freshwater and saltwater environments right across Australia.

You're most likely to see a Rakali as it runs along the shore edge in a lake, river or beach. You can tell if you have Rakalis in your backyard by their footprints. As the Rakali has webbed feet, they leave very strange and unique footprints in sandy shores and banks. Rakalis can be messy eaters and leave piles of shells and small bones in your garden or park.

The Rakali will prey on fish, crustaceans, amphibians or small land animals. They have been known to sneak into backyards to grab pet food.

Rakalis are key indicators of a healthy wetland system, and if they are struggling to find enough food in the form of invertebrates and fish, chances are that there has been a change in the water quality.

Rakalis grow up to 60 cm long. Being the largest rat in Australia, they are useful to have around as they actually fight off introduced rats. You can tell them apart from introduced rats by their pale belly, mass of whiskers and the white tip on the end of their tail.

The Rakali plays a similar role in the Australian ecosystems as the otter does in the northern hemisphere. They hunt in similar ways, have similar bodies and both have water repellent fur. However unlike otters they don't have very well insulated fur, so Rakalis have to be careful that they don't get too cold or hot.

To cope with extreme temperatures, the Rakali becomes more active during the day in winter and spends less time in the water to keep warm in the sun. During hot summer days they will take refuge in their burrows along rivers and shorelines.

As the Rakali and the Platypus are a similar size, they often share burrows—but not at the same time. The burrows are mainly used by the female Rakali when she is suckling her young or to shelter from harsh temperatures.

The Rakali has not been researched as extensively as other more well-known Australian mammals. We do know that they are very territorial, especially the males. It is thought that once mated, the male will patrol his territory to keep out threats such as other Rakalis and introduced rodents. His territory can be as large as 4kms of river length and sometimes he has more than one female living in this area that he will look after.

Rakalis mate in late winter and spring in southern Australia or at any time of year in warmer regions. The female gives birth to up to four pups in a softly lined nest at the end of her burrow. She will feed them with her milk for around four weeks and then supervise them outside the nest for another four weeks.

You're more likely to see the Rakali than our other Aussie rodents, as Rakali are active during the day. They are also fairly common in urban areas but you may mistake them for introduced rats.

Did you know?

Some Rakalis have developed the unusual ability of killing and eating the Cane Toads without being poisoned. Rakalis are either immune to Cane Toad poison, or they have figured out a way to avoid coming into contact with the poison glands.

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Photo: OEH