Pygmy possums could melt the hardest of hearts. But they’re not just pretty faces: though they can’t glide, they use their prehensile (grasping) tails like fifth limbs to climb swiftly and can deftly leap between tall trees.
Just as they depend on their habitat, they also play a large role in maintaining habitat health by pollinating plants.
The pygmy possum family is divided into two groups – the genus Burramys and the genus Cercartetus. Burramys contains only one surviving species – the Mountain Pygmy Possum – three other extinct species are known from fossils.
Cercartetus has four species (all surviving):
- Western Pygmy Possum (Cercartetus concinnus),
- Eastern Pygmy Possum (C. nanus)
- Tasmanian (or Little) Pygmy Possum (C. lepidus) and
- Long-tailed Pygmy Possum (C. caudatus)
Pygmy possums are tree-dwelling marsupials. From head to tail they can be as large as 12cm and, fully grown, as small as 5cm! They weigh between 10g and 50g.
They have large eyes, large ears and long whiskers. Their soft, fur coat is fawn to grey on top and white underneath. Like many marsupials, their long tails swell with extra fat in times of plenty.
Where do pygmy possums live?
The Long-tailed Pygmy Possum is found in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. The other species are endemic to (only found in) Australia.
It’s hard to know the exact distribution of pygmy possums as they’re notoriously difficult to capture.
We do know that Western Pygmy Possums are found across most of southern Australia; Eastern Pygmy Possums are found in eastern and south-eastern Australia, including Tasmania; and the Tasmanian Pygmy Possum is found both on the island itself, and on the mainland, on the border of South Australia and north-western Victoria.
Pygmy possums live in a variety of habitats – they’re found in dense rainforests, wet and dry sclerophyll forests, woodlands, mallee scrub and coastal heathlands. Typically solitary, males have a larger home range than females. Their territories are non-exclusive and overlapping, and sometimes individuals share a communal nest.
The Mountain Pygmy Possum is considered Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN); the remainder of the species are considered of Least Concern (although they’re not common in many areas in which they’re found, and require close monitoring).
Pygmy possum behaviour
Pygmy possums are nocturnal. During the night they eat nectar and pollen from eucalypts, banksias and bottlebrushes. They’re important pollinators of these plants. When flowers are scarce they also eat fruit, seeds and insects.
During the day they shelter in tree hollows, holes in the ground, and in the nests of ringtail possums. In cold weather they can become torpid – conserving energy by curling up, folding in their ears and lowering their internal temperature and metabolic rate. This can last for a few hours or for days on end.
Pygmy possums make small, spherical nests by lining tree hollows, tree forks or abandoned bird-nests with shredded bark.
Young are born whenever food is abundant, often between late spring and autumn. Depending on the species, the mother pygmy possum gives birth to a litter of three to eight young.
As a marsupial she raises her undeveloped young in a pouch. Here they suckle until they're weaned at about two months old.
Pygmy possums live to approximately five years in the wild.
Threats to pygmy possums
Owls, Tasmanian Devils, dingoes, quolls, goannas and snakes all eat pygmy possums. Feral cats, foxes and dogs have increased this predation pressure.
But arguably the biggest threat to pygmy possums is habitat degradation and land clearing for agriculture, development and forestry. This species spends its life nesting, feeding and breeding in trees and shrubs.
For this reason, pygmy possums are also vulnerable to altered fire regimes. Many of the plant species it eats have an intricate association with fire; more frequent or intense fires may adversely affect the persistence of these plants.
Finally, overgrazing by feral herbivores threatens suitable pygmy possum habitat by lowering shrub diversity.
What’s Bush Heritage doing?
With three species of pygmy possum already extinct, we know how important it is to look after those that remain. We protect Eastern Pygmy Possums on Scottsdale Reserve in NSW; the Tasmanian Pygmy Possum on Friendly Beaches, Liffey River and South Esk Reserves; and the Western Pygmy Possum on Chingarrup, Kojonup and the Monjebup reserves in Western Australia.
We look after pygmy possums by controlling feral cats, foxes, dogs, rabbits, goats and other herbivores. We destock our properties, allowing plants to regenerate and protect habitat to provide food and shelter for pygmy possums.
Finally, we carefully manage fires, aiming for a low-intensity, lower frequency fire regime.
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