Possum Tragic: Victoria's Vanishing Vertebrate

Deep in the Australian bush, a pair of possums set out on an adventure that will take them across the continent. Grandma Poss makes her granddaughter Hush invisible to keep her safe from predators, but when Hush decides she wants to be seen, Poss must work her bush magic to make her visible again.

Possum Magic, written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Julie Vivas, first appeared on shelves more than thirty years ago. Over the course of three decades this charming piece of children’s literature has worked its way into the country’s collective imagination. With a magical narrative and a host of native characters, Possum Magic has become a pivotal part of childhood in Australia.

Yet this whimsical tale of a disappearing possum is not as far from reality as we may think. Though species like Ringtail and Brushtail Possums are a common sight in Melbourne’s parks and gardens, elsewhere in Victoria their relative, the mountain pygmy possum, is in danger of extinction.

The mountain pygmy possum is just one species currently under threat of extinction. Image: Matt West

The mountain pygmy possum is just one species currently under threat of extinction. Image: Matt West

At Mount Buller, one of only three populations of mountain pygmy possum in the world is dwindling to invisibility. Australia’s only hibernating marsupial measures up to 29cm from the top of its head to the tip of its tail, and weighs between 30 to 60 grams. Confined to alpine and subalpine regions due to their dependence on winter snow, there are very few populations left in Australia (two in Victoria and one in New South Wales) and less than 2,000 individuals remaining today.

Hibernation is a vital part of life for the mountain pygmy possum.  Image: Matt West

Hibernation is a vital part of life for the mountain pygmy possum.  Image: Matt West

In 1996, it was estimated that there were 300 adult female mountain pygmy possums at Mount Buller. Over the years their population has fallen rapidly, and in 2007 it was estimated that there were as few as 30 adults surviving. Habitat destruction is one of the key reasons for the dramatic decline in their numbers; the growth of the ski resort at Mount Buller, for example, has negatively impacted on the mountain pygmy possum population. Climate change is affecting snowfall and disrupting hibernation, while wildfires are damaging to their habitats.

This species is now estimated to inhabit a total range of less than seven square kilometres. As the snowline recedes across the country, their numbers continue to fall. Surprisingly, the first record of the species was discovered in 1894: a fossil found in the Wombeyan Caves, New South Wales. For the best part of a century, it was the only evidence that the creatures had ever existed. A living specimen wasn’t found until 1966. Now, nearly fifty years later, we are on the brink of losing them forever. Like Grandma Poss, we need to work some bush magic before our possums vanish completely.

Let us hope that the unique mountain pygmy possum does not disappear like little Hush. Image: Julie Vivas

Let us hope that the unique mountain pygmy possum does not disappear like little Hush. Image: Julie Vivas

Mem Fox’s earlier drafts of her most famous work featured mice in the leading roles. It wasn’t until late in the process that Hush and her Grandma became possums. Would the tale of Hush the vanishing mouse have become as integral to the Australian psyche? Likely not. The true value of Mem Fox’s and Julie Vivas’ work is to be found not only in the telling of a magical and memorable story, but in reminding children and adults that there is magic to be found in the bush.

 

Banner image courtesy of Julie Vivas