An important ancestral figure in the mythology of the Warlpiri people, the last wild mala (rufous hare-wallaby, Lagorchestes hirsutus) population in central Australia went extinct in the early 1990s, succumbing to the impacts of destructive wildfires and feral predators like foxes and cats. These small macropods are now making a comeback behind the conservation fences, thanks to captive breeding programs.
The mala is a small marsupial covered in a greyish-orange fur. It grows to about 30cm tall. If you spot a smaller one it is likely to be male. On average they weigh only 1-2kg! The animals resemble hares in looks (hence the hare-wallaby), but with larger hind legs and a long thin tail, used for balance. Their scientific name ‘Lagorchestes hirsutus’ means ‘shaggy dancing hare’. This refers both to the shaggy fur on their lower back and the similarities the wallaby has to hares.
Mala prefers to go out at night and will hide underground during the day throughout most of summer. Their diet consists of seeds, fruits and leaves, with no water required. This is because they are typically found in semi-arid climates an obtain the moisture they need from their food. Females breed throughout the year (no set breeding season) and may have up to three young, which the mother carries around in her pouch. Joeys will be kept in their mother’s pouch for around 125 days.
They primarily use body language to communicate with each other. However, when frightened they may scream. Or rather, they produce a high-pitched squeak. In sanctuaries, the wallabies tend to have a lifespan of up to 13 years, which is longer than in the wild.
The rufous hare-wallaby is an important animal to Aboriginal culture. For the Anangu, or Aboriginal people, the Mala or "hare wallaby people" are important ancestral beings. Mala Tjukurpa, the Mala Law, is essential to culture and celebrated in dance and stories.
Rufous hare-wallaby listed as an endangered in WA, extinct in NT, endangered in SA and endangered species status nationally in Australia.
Today, we share the chromosome-length genome assembly for rufous hare-wallaby. The sample for the genome assembly was provided by Natasha Tay, Harry Butler Institute, Murdoch University. This is a $1K genome assembly, with contig N50=57kb, and scaffold N50=401Mb. See our Methods page for more detail on the assembly procedure. Check out the interactive Hi-C contact map for 10 chromosomes of the rufous hare-wallaby below and on the relevant assembly page.
The work was enabled by resources provided by DNA Zoo Australia, The University of Western Australia (UWA) and DNA Zoo, Aiden Lab at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) with additional computational resources and support from the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre with funding from the Australian Government and the Government of Western Australia.
A high-quality genome sequence is an essential resource required to implement genomics data into conservation management initiatives. More than 80% of the current 200 Australian national vertebrate recovery plans have genetic action listed in the species recovery plan with less than 15% of them having any genomic data available. Reach out if you have access to sample to help us address the gap!