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A Pygmy Possum among purple flowers. Photo Michelle Hall.
A Pygmy Possum among purple flowers. Photo Michelle Hall.

Pygmy Possums

Scientific name: Family: Burramyidae

Agile climbers, they primarily feed on nectar but will also eat fruit, seeds and insects.

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.

A Pygmy Possum found on Monjebup North. Photo William Marwick.

Cercartetus has four species (all surviving):

  1. Western Pygmy Possum (Cercartetus concinnus),
  2. Eastern Pygmy Possum (C. nanus)
  3. Tasmanian (or Little) Pygmy Possum (C. lepidus) and
  4. 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.

Young Pygmy Possum in restored vegetation. Photo: Rosie Hohnen.


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Where pygmy possums live

The Long-tailed Pygmy Possum is found in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. The other species are 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).

An artificial pygmy possum nest box in Monjebup Reserve restoration area. Photo Angela Sanders.

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.

Volunteer Sandra Gilfillan checking a nest box for Pygmy Possums. Photo Angela Sanders.

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, Red Moort and the Monjebup reserves in Western Australia where much revegetation work has been done.

The team at Monjebup got a surprise when they peered into this nest box below, to find an orange-eyed Southwestern Spiny-tailed Gecko cosied up with a family of Western Pygmy Possums! 

An orange-eyed Southwestern Spiny-tailed Gecko sharing a nest box with pygmy possums. Photo Kelsey Lambert.

According to ecologist Angela Sanders, while they occasionally find this species of gecko in the boxes, they’d never seen them before with the possums. “My best guess is that it’s getting warmth from the possums. There’s limited natural habitat for these animals in the revegetated area, so the boxes are providing vital shelter for them until the vegetation develops to a stage of providing cracks and crevices and loose bark.”

We also 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.

Western Pygmy Possum Bushgift card.

A Western Pygmy Possum Gift Card is a virtual gift that supports our work providing habitat and nest boxes for pygmy possums in south-west WA. See our bushgifts card range for more.

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Pygmy Possum stories

BLOG 27/12/2019

Which is cuter – Honey or Pygmy Possum?

There’s some conjecture around which tiny marsupial is the cutest, Honey or Pygmy Possums. After seeing both popping up in the pitfall traps and nesting boxes blanketing the reserve, I can understand the debate. Over the course of five days myself and four other volunteers interacted with a broad cross-section of animals that had made homes for themselves in the newly revegetated areas.

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BLOG 25/11/2019

Social spiders in possum nest boxes

Pygmy Possums quickly took up residence in the nest boxes we erected in restored habitat at our Monjebup North reserve in southwest WA. What we didn't expect were the large colonies of social spiders that also moved in!

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BLOG 12/06/2018

Hello possums!

Our restoration on Monjebup North Reserve is bursting with life. This 450 hectares of former farmland sitting in the Gondwana Link pathway on the south coast of WA was revegetated over 3 years from 2012 to 2014 and we're now seeing some measurable benefits for wildlife.

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BLOG 10/10/2017

Pygmy Possum bed & breakfast

In January this year volunteers Annie and Ian Mayo put up 20 Pygmy Possum nest boxes in the vegetation restoration area on Monjebup North Reserve in south-west Western Australia. The boxes were funded by a generous donation from a supporter to provide shelter and nesting sites for these tiny possums in the developing vegetation.

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