The Mountain Pygmy Possum

It’s easy to forget while enjoying your winter holiday that the Australian Alps are not only home to seasonal snow families – they are the home to many native flora and fauna all year round. 

SnowKids would like to share some information about a sweet and furry animal that needs our protection – the beloved and critically endangered Mountain Pygmy-possum (Burramys parvus). The world’s only hibernating marsupial, it was once thought extinct until rediscovered in 1966 at a ski lodge in Mt Hotham. Since then small colonies have been found in three known locations: in Victoria in the Alpine National Park, Mt Hotham, Mt Buller and Falls Creek Resorts and in New South Wales in Kosciuszko National Park.

The Mountain Pygmy-possum inhabits the deep extensive boulder fields of the alpine and subalpine regions 1200 metres above sea level, and remains on the critically endangered list with a population of under 2,000. The largest of the five known living species of Pygmy-possums, it can grow up to 28cm in length with a body circumference of around 16cm, easily fitting in the palm of your hand and only weighing around 45 grams. Females can survive for up to 12 years while males can live up to 5, but due to threats in the wild and habitat destruction they are at risk of surviving only 1-3 years.


For seven months of the year the Pygmy-possums hibernate under the snow.
Males and females remain separated during this time with the females nesting at higher altitudes. Come springtime the males make their way up the mountain to mate with the females. After mating the males return to lower altitudes, leaving the females with a litter of up to four joeys. Their main diet consists of the Bogong moth and is supplemented by seeds, other plants and the fruit of the Mountain Plum Pine. During hibernation, the Pygmy-possums wake to feed off the stored seeds in their nests and live off their own body fat. In spring the Bogong moth is a vital part of their diet – as it is high in fats it allows the possums to survive the harsh, cold winter.


THREATS

Unfortunately, this critically endangered marsupial has several threats that contribute to its declining population: 

  • Shrinking habitat due to land redevelopment
  • Natural disasters, fires and erosion as well as weed invasion
  • Lack of breeding – males need to safely migrate to the females for breeding season
  • Climate Change – rising temperatures mean altered landscapes in the alpine areas resulting in decreased snow depths and the length of time snow remains on the ground.
  • Waking too early from hibernation increases risk of exposure to predators and lack of food
  • Predators – foxes, feral cats as well as other native and domestic animals
  • Limited food supply – Bogong moths migrate from Queensland, New South Wales and Western Victoria to the mountains every summer escaping the lowland heat of Australia. Since 2017 a major decline in moths has been noted possibly due to distraction of city and town lights, drought and pesticide use. Unfortunately, recent extreme drought conditions in their Queensland and New South Wales breeding grounds have further affected Bogong moth numbers.

HOW WE CAN HELP

Here at SnowKids we are committed to the conservation of these sweet native marsupials. By changing a few things in our daily lives we hope to ensure their survival for years to come.

Here are a few things you can do, even if you don’t live in the alpine regions! 

  • Turn off unnecessary outside lights in spring to help bring the Bogong moths to the alpine regions
  • Have domesticated animals de-sexed and keep them away from the ski fields
  • Raise community awareness and support for the Mountain Pygmy-possum (you can start by sharing this article with others)
  • Do what you can to keep your carbon footprint to a minimum when visiting national parks 
  • When skiing or bushwalking in the alps be respectful of the native flora and fauna
  • Drive carefully and watch out for wildlife on the roads to and from the ski fields
  • Before visiting ski resorts read about how you can look after the local wildlife (like Mt Buller https://www.mtbuller.com.au/Summer/environment/flora-fauna )
  • Join a local conservation group
  • Help plant the Mountain Plum Pine by buying a Totes for Wildlife bag (see below)

Scientists also need help filling in knowledge gaps about the annual Bogong moth migration. Anyone can do this by snapping a photo and uploading it to Zoos Victoria’s Moth Tracker citizen science platform. This way, we can work together with the Mountain Pygmy-possum Recovery Team to get a better idea of how many Bogong moths are out there each year and determine whether the hungry possums are likely to find this fatty food source when they wake up in Spring from hibernation. This is particularly useful when people around Victoria’s ski fields register a sighting because it tells us if the remaining Bogong moths have made it to where they’re meant to go.


HOW OTHERS ARE HELPING

Conservation groups such as Conservation Volunteers Australia, Bushcare group and local ‘friends of’ conservation groups are already making efforts to conserve this threatened species. Zoos Victoria is currently researching the eating and reproductive habits of the Mountain Pygmy Possum, as well as trying to recreate their habitat at Healesville Sanctuary in order to help them survive. Victorian and New South Wales conservation agency staff work closely with ski resort operators to protect this tiny possum.


In 2016 the Victorian Government invested $25,000 through its Threatened Species Protection Initiative (TSPI) to develop a project plan in the Mt Hotham Alpine Resort at Mt Little Higginbotham. The project constructed a new rock corridor linking crucial Mountain Pygmy-possum habitats above and below the Great Alpine Road.

MOUNTAIN PLUM PINE

This is another important food source for Mountain Pygmy-possums and one that we’re going to plant more of in their Victorian habitat. Currently, and through to February 2020, Zoos Victoria is selling Mountain Pygmy-possum tote bags; called Totes for Wildlife. For every single tote bag sold, Zoos Victoria will plant a shrub such as a Mountain Plum Pine in the wild for Mountain Pygmy-possums to eat. These cost of a bag is $10 and they can be bought at Melbourne Zoo, Healesville Sanctuary, Werribee Open Range Zoo, in Victorian Petstock stores or online with free postage.

 



Reference: Australia Zoo https://www.zoo.org.au/possums/
Photo credits: Front page cover: Amanda McLean, Article: Sarah Summers – Zoos Victoria