Species Profile and Threats Database

For information to assist proponents in referral, environmental assessments and compliance issues, refer to the Policy Statements and Guidelines (where available), the Conservation Advice (where available) or the Listing Advice (where available).
In addition, proponents and land managers should refer to the Recovery Plan (where available) or the Conservation Advice (where available) for recovery, mitigation and conservation information.

EPBC Act Listing Status Listed as Endangered
Recovery Plan Decision Recovery Plan required, included on the Commenced List (1/11/2009).
Adopted/Made Recovery Plans
Other EPBC Act Plans Threat Abatement Plan for Predation by the European Red Fox (Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA), 2008zzq) [Threat Abatement Plan].
Policy Statements and Guidelines Survey guidelines for Australia's threatened mammals. EPBC Act survey guidelines 6.5 (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC), 2011j) [Admin Guideline].
Federal Register of
    Legislative Instruments
Declaration under s178, s181, and s183 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 - List of threatened species, List of threatened ecological communities and List of threatening processes (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000) [Legislative Instrument].
State Government
    Documents and Websites
NT:Threatened Species of the Northern Territory - Sandhill Dunnart Sandhill Dunnart (Pavey, C., 2006t) [Information Sheet].
SA:Threatened Species - Sandhill Dunnart (South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage (SA DEH), 2009h) [Internet].
State Listing Status
SA: Listed as Vulnerable (National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 (South Australia): June 2011 list)
WA: Listed as Endangered (Wildlife Conservation Act 1950 (Western Australia): September 2013 list)
Non-statutory Listing Status
IUCN: Listed as Endangered (Global Status: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: 2013.1 list)
Scientific name Sminthopsis psammophila [291]
Family Dasyuridae:Polyprotodonta:Mammalia:Chordata:Animalia
Species author Spencer,1895
Infraspecies author  
Distribution map Species Distribution Map

This is an indicative distribution map of the present distribution of the species based on best available knowledge. See map caveat for more information.

Illustrations Google Images

The Sandhill Dunnart is a medium sized carnivorous marsupial and the largest of Australia's 19 dunnart species; with adults weighing 26–55 g (Churchill 2001b; Pavey 2006t; SA DEH 2008). The species has large, dark eyes, large ears and a pointed snout. Fur colour is plain grey to buff or yellow-brown above, with darker hairs interspersed throughout. There is a dark triangle of fur on the crown and forehead. The face and flanks are buff, and underparts and feet are whitish in colour. The tapering tail is grey above and darker underneath with a crest of short, bristle-like, black hairs near the tip. The tail length (up to 12.8 cm long) is longer than the head-body length (up to 11.4 cm long) (Churchill 2001b; Pavey 2006t; SA DEH 2008; Strahan 1998).

The Sandhill Dunnart has a relatively large distribution; across the south-western Great Victoria Desert in both Western Australia and South Australia, the nearby Queen Victoria Spring Nature Reserve in Western Australia, and in the Cowell to Pinkawillinie region on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia (Hart & Kitchener 1986; Pearson & Robinson 1990; SA DEH 2008; Ward et al. 2008). The species was first recorded in 1894 in the Northern Territory near Lake Amadeus between Kurtitina Well and Uluru. No live animals have been caught there since, although remains have been identified in owl pellets collected from Uluru and Kata Tjuta (Pavey 2006t).

The estimated area of occupancy for the Sandhill Dunnart is estimated at less than 500 km2 (Robinson et al. 2008 cited in IUCN 2011) to less than 2000 km2 (Churchill 2001b). An extent of occurrence of approximately 5000 km2 is mapped for the species (Robinson et al. 2008 cited in IUCN 2011), though Churchill (2001b) gives an area of occupancy of less than 20 000 km2.

The Perth Zoo holds a small captive population of the Sandhill Dunnart. The zoo has been involved in reproductive biology studies as well as undertaking annual surveys in suitable habitat of the species (Robertson 2007; Withers & Cooper 2009).

The species has been reasonably well surveyed in the habitat of known populations and some surrounding areas. However there is extensive suitable habitat in Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory and it is highly likely that the species will occur at more locations than the nine presently known (Churchill 2001b). From August 1999 to May 2001, a survey for the species conducted within the southern Great Victoria Desert and the Eyre Peninsula collected 29 specimens at five sites (Churchill 2001a). However other surveys, in apparently suitable habitat between the Eyre Peninsula and the Great Victoria Desert in South Australia, failed to locate additional populations, as have surveys in the eastern Western Australia area (Robinson et al. 2008 cited in IUCN 2011).

The total population size is unknown, but estimated at less than 2500 mature individuals (Robinson et al. 2008 cited in IUCN 2011). However, in suitable habitat they may achieve a density of 25 dunnarts per km2 (Churchill 2001b).

Important populations of the species are (Churchill 2001b):

  • Near Whyalla on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia.
  • In Yellabinna Regional Reserve in the Great Victoria Desert near Ooldea in South Australia.
  • In and near Queen Victoria Springs Nature Reserve in Western Australia.

The Sandhill Dunnart has been recorded in:

  • The Queen Victoria Spring Nature Reserve in Western Australia (Boulton & Foulkes 2000).
  • The Yellabinna Regional Reserve in the Great Victoria Desert of South Australia (Churchill 2001b).
  • The Pinkawillinie Conservation Park and the Hincks Wilderness Protected Area on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia (Way 2008).

The Sandhill Dunnart occurs in semi-arid habitats of sand dunes, often 30–50 m high, with an understorey of spinifex (Triodia spp.) hummock grass, and an overstorey that varies widely (Churchill 2001b; Robinson et al. 2008 cited in IUCN 2011; SA DEH 2008).

Site-specifc Species Associations

The Great Victoria Desert populations in Western Australia occur in a mosaic of Marble Gum (Eucalyptus gongylocarpa) and mallee woodland, both with spinifex and some shrubs as the understorey (SA DEH 2008).

At Queen Victoria Spring (approximately 35 km to the south of the Mulga Rock site) the vegetation is low open woodland of Marble Gum with occasional mallees and a diverse shrub layer. Beneath this shrub layer, spinifex (specifically Triodia basedowii) provided 25% ground cover. The landform is an area of sand plain with low dunes present 1 km to the north and north-east (SA DEH 2008).

In the Eyre Peninsula, associated species in open mallee country (mallee broombush shrub) included Yorrell (Eucalyptus gracilis), Ridge-fruited Mallee (E. incrassata), Red Mallee (E. oleosa) and Beaked Red Mallee (E. socialis) with Scrub Cypress Pine (Callitris verrucosa) (SA DEH 2008).

Great Victoria Desert populations in South Australia occur in low open woodland or mallee of Red Mallee, Beaked Red Mallee, Victoria Desert Mallee (E. concinna), Cue York Gum (E. striaticalyx), Bullock bush (Alectryon oleifolium), Sandalwood (Santalum acuminatum), Mulga (Acacia aneura), Belah (Casuarina pauper), Cypress (Callitris verrucosa) and False Sandalwood (Myoporum platycarpum) (Churchill 2001b; SA DEH 2008).

Use and Importance of Spinifex

All sites have diverse but open shrub layers and spinifex ranging from 10–70% of the ground cover (Churchill 2001b). Spinifex is a critical habitat component for the species, with hummocks of a particular age and structure necessary for the Sandhill Dunnart to build a nest within the centre of the plant. Larger spinifex, containing a dead centre ("Stage 3" spinifex) or those known as 'Type 2' (20.5 cm mean height) and 'Type 5' (25.5 cm mean height) are preferred (Churchill 2001b; SA DEH 2008; Ward et al. 2008). Sandhill Dunnarts enter spinifex hummocks by leaping up onto the hummock and climbing over the needles to the centre, before scrambling down through the central portion of dead leaves. In the centre of the hummock they build a circular depression or space within the dead Spinifex needles which provide protection and insulation from the extremes of temperature found in their arid environment (Churchill 2001b; SA DEH 2008).

At Ooldea (in the Great Victoria Desert) and at sites in the Eyre Peninsula, the Sandhill Dunnart, most notably adult females, has been recorded residing in burrows dug under spinifex that has aged and broken down. Burrows started from within a spinifex hummock grass, spiraling down under the plant, and ranged from 12–110 cm in length and penetrated up to 46 cm below the surface. Nesting material of leaves and shredded bark was often found in a small chamber at the end of the burrow (Churchill 2001b). Male Sandhill Dunnarts have also been recorded utilising other nest sites, such as hollow logs or burrows made by the Mitchell's Hopping-mouse (Notomys mitchelli) (Churchill 2001b).

Both males and females of the species reach sexual maturity in their first year (Churchill 2001b). Longevity is not recorded, however, in captivity, one male was still capable of breeding at five years of age and one female bred at three years of age (Lambert et al. 2011).

The Sandhill Dunnart mates in September, with young being born in September and October. Young are weaned from December to January. At some sites, young have been recorded in October and April suggesting that the species may be able to extend the timing of reproduction or produce a second litter during good seasons (Churchill 2001b).

Lambert and colleagues (2011) undertook a captive breeding study of the species and classified the Sandhill Dunnart as a "Strategy V dasyurid" characterised by polyoestry (possibly more than one pregnancy per year) in females, sexual maturity at 8–11 months, and an extended and seasonal breeding season. Their study also found that the species exhibited a photoperiod response, with all females coming into oestrus (sexual receptivity) within the same 20-day period in very late June to mid-July; just after the winter Solstice. Other reproductive parameters they found were similar to other Sminthopsis species, such as a 16–19 day interval between mating and birth which indicates a period of sperm storage in the female before ovulation takes place. Female Sandhill Dunnarts have eight teats and have been recorded with up to five young (Churchill 2001b).

The Sandhill Dunnart is a generalist, opportunistic feeder (Churchill 2001a). Ants, beetles, spiders, grasshoppers, termites, wasps and centipedes are all recorded being eaten by the species. The bones of a small reptile (probably a gecko) were found in one scat. The species is not selective in prey choice, with diversity of prey high in all seasons, and studies of diet showing little variation in the proportion of prey items eaten. No termites were recorded in January or March and vegetable matter was mostly encountered from January to May (Churchill 2001a).

Sandhill Dunnarts are nocturnal (Churchill 2001b). The species has been recorded in torpor (a state of mental and physical inactivity) (Withers & Cooper 2009), which helps it conserve water and energy in harsh environments. The species enters only a short and shallow torpor period (Withers & Cooper 2009).

The average home range size of the Sandhill Dunnart is approximately 7.8 ha (range 1.8 ha to 19.0 ha), with male home ranges often overlapping that of other males and females. Females may maintain exclusive home ranges. Sandhill Dunnarts move between 200–300 m whilst foraging. However, long distance movements have been recorded in short periods of time, with one movement of 1940 m recorded in two hours. Limited data indicates that the species remains within an area for at least 8 months, but the boundaries of the home range may drift over time (Churchill 2001b).

The species may be elusive (Churchill 2001b), with only 60 individuals captured at all sites up to the year 2000 (Pavey 2006t) and low numbers caught even with intensive trapping using both Elliot and pitfall traps at some sites (Ward et al. 2008).

Sandhill Dunnarts have been captured in Elliott traps and in deep pitfall traps (55–60 cm deep). The use of shallower traps in biological surveys may limit or prevent their capture, as the species is capable of leaping high onto a Spinifex hummock and may be capable of leaping out of shallow pitfall traps (Churchill 2001b). Trapping success is greatest in the months of March and September. The species avoids Elliott traps during the warmer period from October to February (Churchill 2001b). Most captures with Elliott traps have been made in suitable older hummock grass habitat areas subject to long-term trapping projects, such as at the Queen Victoria Spring and at Middleback sites (Churchill 2001b).

Radiotracking of individuals at Middleback showed that animals were slow to enter traps at first, but readily became trap 'addicted', being captured in Elliott traps up to 3 times in a single night. They are rarely recaptured in pitfall traps (Churchill 2001b). Elliot traps may also be required to be set in high densities in suitable habitat to ensure trapping success (Ward et al. 2008).

The Survey guidelines for Australia's threatened mammals (DSEWPaC 2011j) may assist in identifying suitable techniques for surveying the species.

Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation

Clearing of habitat for agriculture, infrastructure such as roads or powerlines, and mining and associated infrastructure is a major threat to many populations. The Cowell and Middleback sites on the Eyre Peninsula are only 19 km apart, and situated on the same grazing lease (Moola). Both sites are subject to disturbance from clearing for agriculture, they are adjacent to iron-ore mines and the Middleback site is between cleared lines for high-voltage electricity cables and a railway line that services the mines. The Cowell site is adjacent to a major highway between Whyalla and Port Lincoln and is on the boundary of another pastoral property that has been cleared previously for wheat production (Churchill 2001b).

Inappropriate fire regimes

Sandhill Dunnarts prefer large, mature spinifex clumps in which to nest, and suitable hummocks are most often found approximately five to ten years post firing. Approximately only 5% of the available spinifex hummocks on sites occupied by the species on the Eyre Peninsula met the criteria of large and mature. Lack of controlled cooler winter burning in arid areas, since European settlement, has seen a greater number of wildfire events. These events are not suitable for the Sandhill Dunnart as they burn large areas of the country, thus severely reducing structural diversity. Spinifex is very susceptible to fires at high temperatures, producing a flammable resin. However, lack of burning means habitat does not regenerate and hummocks die off providing little shelter (Churchill 2001b).

Predation by introduced animals

Whilst a study of 128 Fox (Vulpes vulpes) scats found only two positive identifiable Sandhill Dunnart remains (Bolton & Foulkes 2000), predation by introduced species has been cited as a possible cause for the decline of many small marsupials in arid areas (Churchill 2001b; Pavey 2006t).

The South Australian Department of Environment and Heritage (SA DEH) Recovery Plan for the Sandhill Dunnart (Sminthopsis psammophila) (Churchill 2001b) outlines the following actions to aid in the recovery of the Sandhill Dunnart:

  • Prevent further clearance of suitable habitat on Eyre Peninsula.
  • Conduct experimental burns in suitable habitat to promote the growth of Spinifex on Eyre Peninsula.
  • Conduct a detailed biological survey of Eyre Peninsula and further surveys of the Great Victoria Desert.
  • Encourage the use of deep pitfall traps in small mammal surveys in central Australia and the northern regions of the Great Victoria Desert.
  • Implement monitoring programs for the key populations.
  • Study the species in captivity to examine reproductive biology.

The Department for Environment and Heritage's Nature Links: East Meets West program aims to achieve habitat connectivity to benefit biodiversity, including the Sandhill Dunnart, across the central and northern Eyre Peninsula, and across the far west of the state including Pinkawillinie, Kulliparu, Hambidge, Hinks and Yumbarra Conservation Parks and Yellabinna and Nullabor Regional Reserves (SA DEH 2008).

As part of this program, and in line with the recovery plan, five permanent Sandhill Dunnart monitoring sites were established in the Great Victoria Desert at Yellabinna in May 2008. Sites include a sample of optimum and sub-optimal habitat and recently burnt versus unburnt sites to gain further knowledge of habitat preferences and use. In addition, a parcel of land west of the Middleback Ranges, 'Shirrocoe' on the eastern Eyre Peninsula, is in the process of being dedicated under the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 as a Conservation Park. The area contains three known Sandhill Dunnart sites, and the Department for Environment and Heritage is currently developing a collaborative management plan for the area with neighbouring landholders (SA DEH 2008).

More generally, fire has been identified as an important element for the continuation of the spinifex habitat required by the Sandhill Dunnart. Lack of fire in older areas of spinifex leads to break down in its habit from hummocks to large broken rings providing little cover for Sandhill Dunnarts. Fire that is too frequent reduces the size of hummocks providing unsuitable cover (Churchill 2001b; SA DEH 2008). Therefore, frequent burning or absence of burning may render a location unsuitable for the species for many years. The small populations on Eyre Peninsula appear to be limited to a series of sand dunes that have not been burnt for more than 15 years (SA DEH 2008). A suitable fire interval of 8 to 20 years may be beneficial to the species (Churchill 2001b). Other factors that influence spinifex cover and structure and, therefore suitability for the species, may include moisture (Ward et al. 2008). The maintenance of spinifex habitat will be integral to the successful recovery of the species.

Management documents for the Sandhill Dunnart can be found at the start of this profile.

The following table lists known and perceived threats to this species. Threats are based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) threat classification version 1.1.

Threat Class Threatening Species References
Agriculture and Aquaculture:Livestock Farming and Grazing:Habitat loss and modification due to clearance of native vegetation and pasture improvements The Impact of Global Warming on the Distribution of Threatened Vertebrates (ANZECC 1991) (Dexter, E.M., A.D. Chapman & J.R. Busby, 1995) [Report].
Invasive and Other Problematic Species and Genes:Invasive Non-Native/Alien Species:Competition and/or predation Vulpes vulpes (Red Fox, Fox) Sminthopsis psammophila in Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006xk) [Internet].
The 1996 Action Plan for Australian Marsupials and Monotremes (Maxwell, S., A.A. Burbidge & K. Morris, 1996) [Cwlth Action Plan].
Invasive and Other Problematic Species and Genes:Invasive Non-Native/Alien Species:Competition and/or predation Felis catus (Cat, House Cat, Domestic Cat) Sminthopsis psammophila in Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006xk) [Internet].
The 1996 Action Plan for Australian Marsupials and Monotremes (Maxwell, S., A.A. Burbidge & K. Morris, 1996) [Cwlth Action Plan].
Natural System Modifications:Fire and Fire Suppression:Inappropriate and/or changed fire regimes (frequency, timing, intensity) Sminthopsis psammophila in Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006xk) [Internet].
Natural System Modifications:Fire and Fire Suppression:Inappropriate prescribed regimes and/or vegetation management to control fire regimes Sandhill dunnart. In: Strahan, R, ed. The Mammals of Australia. Page(s) 154-155. (Pearson, D.J., 1995) [Book].

Australian Faunal Directory (AFD) (2009). Species Sminthopsis psammophila Spencer, 1895-Sandhill Dunnart. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 12-May-2012].

Bolton, J. & J. Foulkes (2000). Predator scat analysis for the Sandhill Dunnart Project. Report for the Wildlife Conservation Fund, December 2000.

Churchill, S. (2001a). Survey and Ecological Study of the Sandhill Dunnart, Sminthopsis psammophila, at Eyre Peninsula and the Great Victorian Desert. Unpublished report for the South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage, Adelaide. Adelaide: South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage.

Churchill, S. (2001b). Recovery Plan for the Sandhill Dunnart (Sminthopsis psammophila). [Online]. Adelaide: South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage. Available from:

Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC) (2011j). Survey guidelines for Australia's threatened mammals. EPBC Act survey guidelines 6.5. [Online]. EPBC Act policy statement: Canberra, ACT: DSEWPAC. Available from:

Hart, R.P. & D.J. Kitchener (1986). First record of Sminthopsis psammophila (Marsupialia: Dasyuridae) from Western Australia. Records of the Western Australian Museum. 13:139-144.

IUCN (2011). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.2. [Online]. Available from:

Lambert, C., G. Gaikhorst & P. Matson (2011). Captive breeding of the sandhill dunnart, Sminthopsis psammophila (Marsupialia : Dasyuridae): reproduction, husbandry and growth and development. Australian Mammalogy. 33:21-27.

Pavey, C. (2006t). Threatened Species of the Northern Territory - Sandhill Dunnart Sandhill Dunnart . [Online]. Northern Territory Natural Resources, Environment, The Arts and Sport. Available from:

Pearson, D.J. & A.C. Robinson (1990). New records of the sandhill dunnart, Sminthopsis psammophila (Marsupialia: Dasyuridae) in South and Western Australia. Australian Mammalogy. 13:57-59.

Robertson, H.M. (2007). Wildlife Conservation and Perth Zoo. In: National Wildlife Rehabilitation Conference Proceedings 2007. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 10-May-2012].

South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage (SA DEH) (2009h). Threatened Species - Sandhill Dunnart. [Online]. Available from:

South Australian Department of the Environment and Heritage (SA DEH) (2008). Threatened Fauna of Eyre Peninsula Action Statement West Region Sandhill Dunnart Sminthopsis psammophila Endangered. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 27-Apr-2012].

Strahan, R. (Ed.) (1998). The Mammals of Australia, Second Edition, rev. Sydney, NSW: Australian Museum and Reed New Holland.

Ward, M., J. Read & K. Moseby (2008). Monitoring Sandhill Dunnarts Sminthopsis psammophila in the Great Victoria Desert. Report to the Wildlife Conservation Fund. Adelaide, South Australia; Department for the Environment and Heritage.

Way, S. (2008). Sandhill Dunnart (Sminthopsis psammophila) surveys on eastern Eyre Peninsula, SA. Department for Environment and Heritage, South Australia. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 09-May-2012].

Withers P.C. & C.E. Cooper (2009). Thermal, metabolic, hygric and ventilatory physiology of the sandhill dunnart (Sminthopsis psammophila; Marsupialia, Dasyuridae). Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology. Part A Molecular and Integrative Physiology. 153(3):317-23.

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This database is designed to provide statutory, biological and ecological information on species and ecological communities, migratory species, marine species, and species and species products subject to international trade and commercial use protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act). It has been compiled from a range of sources including listing advice, recovery plans, published literature and individual experts. While reasonable efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the information, no guarantee is given, nor responsibility taken, by the Commonwealth for its accuracy, currency or completeness. The Commonwealth does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage that may be occasioned directly or indirectly through the use of, or reliance on, the information contained in this database. The information contained in this database does not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth. This database is not intended to be a complete source of information on the matters it deals with. Individuals and organisations should consider all the available information, including that available from other sources, in deciding whether there is a need to make a referral or apply for a permit or exemption under the EPBC Act.

Citation: Department of the Environment (2014). Sminthopsis psammophila in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of the Environment, Canberra. Available from: Accessed Mon, 22 Sep 2014 05:01:05 +1000.