A trailblazing, treehopping marsupial?

Sunday 20 June, 2010

The tiny red-tailed phascogale has become a trailblazer in Bush Heritage history.

Night falls in the eucalypt woodland of Western Australia's southern wheat belt, but for the red-tailed phascogale, the fun is just beginning. This tiny nocturnal marsupial, weighing just 60g, has a trick up its sleeve when predators come close – it loves to leap from tree to tree, and can travel two metres in one jump if pressed (not bad for an animal whose body averages about 10 cm in length). That makes for an active night in the woodland.

Red-tailed phascogaleRed-tailed phascogale. Photo: Jiri Lochman / Lochman Transparencies

The red-tailed phascogale was once widespread throughout Western Australia but is now threatened with extinction. It's not easy for the phascogale – thanks to land clearance, wildfires and introduced predators, comfy digs are hard to come by. So what is a phascogale to do?

This was the question posed by West Australian scientists recently. Thankfully, Bush Heritage ecologists, working with the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) came up with a plan: what about a change of scene? Kojonup Reserve, they thought, surely has everything a phascogale could ask for: cosy nesting sites in wandoo tree hollows; tasty pickings such as spiders, birds and mice; and areas of close canopy where they can leap from tree to tree.

Bush Heritage Ecologist Angela Sanders and Reserve Manager Mal Graham assisted DEC scientists recently in the first-ever translocation of endangered fauna to a Bush Heritage property. A population of 12 female and 8 male phascogales, trapped on nearby properties, were released into wool-lined nest boxes at Kojonup in mid-May.

'Giving them a warm, ready-made home means they don't have to hunt for nesting hollows and risk being eaten for dinner by hungry barn owls, pythons or goannas,' explains Angela. 'The phascogales are wearing tiny tracking collars so we can keep an eye on their movements.'

Scientists from DEC will be monitoring these tiny animals over the next few months. 'The real excitement will be in a year's time,' says Angela. 'By then we should be able to see if the population has grown, and moreover, if the population has bred successfully on Kojonup.'

With the ongoing help of Bush Heritage's generous supporters, who make work like this possible, we hope the phascogale can keep jumping from tree to tree, catching spiders and nesting in wandoo hollows, all night, every night.

By Charlotte Francis

Photos from the translocation: the phascogales find a new home

Red-tailed phascogale

A home among the wandoo: Amy Mutton from the WA Department of Environment and Conservation is poised to introduce a phascogale to its new home in the wandoo forest.

 Amy Mutton releases a phascogale

Gareth Watkins and Nicole Willers make sure the phascogales have a safe place to lay their heads. Here they're installing a phascogale-sized nesting box, which is wool-lined and keeps them safe from hungry predators.

Gareth Watkins and Nicole Willers installing a phascogale nesting box

The phascogales were fitted with tiny radiocollars, so their movements can be monitored over the few weeks after they're released.

Radiocollar being fitted to a phascogale

A red-tailed phascogale roaming its habitat.

Red-tailed phascogale

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