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Western Australia’s faunal emblem - Numbat

Have no fear, the numbat is here! Today we announce the release of the first chromosome-length genome assembly for one of Australia’s most prized native marsupials.

Australian numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus) boasts a beautifully coloured reddish-brown fur coat, laced with white stripes that contrast with the salt and pepper fur presiding from their tail to slightly past their rear feet. Glossy black eyes located in front of their two cupped ears are tied together with the numbat’s perfectly pointed black noise, making for an intriguing yet eye catching complexion. With their dazzling looks it’s easy to see why numbats are one of Australia’s most prized possessions.

Photo Description: Numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus). Photo credits: Perth Zoo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Creative Commons

Numbats can be found in most of the 'lower half' of Australia. They are known to be solitary and territorial, occupying up to 1.5 square kilometres of land per individual, for same-sex animals. It’s common for male and female territories to overlap, and the two sexes may move even closer together during their mating season lasting from February to March.

Originating from the Dasyuromorphia, the order comprising most of the Australian carnivorous marsupials, these cute creatures feast exclusively on termites. Fussy eaters you might say! Consuming up to 20 000 per day, numbats are strictly diurnal, which means they are only active during the day and their activity levels are closely linked to those of termites [3].

The numbat was on the verge of extinction during the late 20th century. Extensive conservation efforts as well as government and community intervention led to a gradually increasing population of numbats. Still, with less than 1000 numbats left in the wild, the species is listed as ‘endangered’ on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. The main threat to numbats is predation by introduced predators – foxes and cats. This threat of predation is exacerbated by other factors including habitat loss and fragmentation from land clearing, which also makes numbats more vulnerable to birds of prey such as wedge-tailed eagles and falcons.

The genome assembly shared today was generated using the sample provided by Perth Zoo which was used to generate a draft assembly with short-insert size Illumina reads [404,932,803 PE reads] and scaffolded to a chromosome-length genome with Hi-C [662,932,607 PE reads]. See our Methods page for more detail on the assembly procedure. Check the interactive map of the 7 numbat chromosomes below!

The termite-eating numbat is one of the thylacine’s closest living relatives, sharing a common ancestor ~35 million years ago. Both these enigmatic creatures have stripes, but that’s not where the similarity ends – as much as 95 per cent of their DNA may be identical [1].

Check out below how the chromosomes in the new assembly align with those of another close relative of the thylacine, the Tasmanian devil. It appears that the chromosomes have been very stable across Dasyuromorphia, with both species exhibiting the 2n=14 karyotype and one-to-one correspondence between the chromosomes, with just a few tentative inversions.

Whole genome alignment plot between the Numbat and the Tasmanian devil. Numbat genome assembly: Myrmecobius_fasciatus_HiC, Tasmanian devil genome assembly: Devil_ref_v7.0_HiC, a DNA Zoo upgrade from (Murchison et al., 2012).

This 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.

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