A Tale of the Lesser Known: The Brush-Tailed Phascogale

This is a guest post by Priya Mohandoss.

Although Victoria boasts large populations of native marsupials such as bandicoots, possums and gliders, I suspect that very few of us have heard of, let alone captured a glimpse of, the brush-tailed phascogale (Phascogale tapoatafa). Although it can be easily mistaken for a squirrel, a close-up shot reveals small beady eyes, a lengthy snout, and fur enveloped in grey with a creamy-coloured patch under the body. However, what is distinct is its black and bushy tail that holds the clue to the name of this particular species. This species, also known as the tuan, is a member of the family Dasyruidae, which also encompasses a range of creatures from the timid spot-tailed quoll to the fiery Tasmanian devil.

During the day, this creature hides within the cracks of trunks and branches of eucalypts where it can convalesce and prepare itself for a night of frenzied searching for food through the layers of dense forest. Although timid in nature, its buzz of activity throughout the night makes up for its calm composure during the day. For nature buffs, it is well worth the wait to stay up late for the best chance of spotting one.  

An 1863 illustration of the brush-tailed phascogale.  Image: John Gould / Wikimedia Commons

An 1863 illustration of the brush-tailed phascogale. Image: John Gould / Wikimedia Commons

The brush-tailed phascogale primarily forages for insects, spiders and centipedes that have been left to decay in bark, dead trees and leaf litter, and they climb from tree to tree to devour the sweet juices of box and ironbark eucalypts. Birds and small mammals are also known to be its prey. Its consumption of rodents as well as a vast array of insects makes this mammal an important part of maintaining a balance within the forest ecosystem. 

Its diet in comparison to other species of marsupial is a peculiarity in itself. It is a common behaviour for the phascogale to hang upside-down, clinging with its feet to the branches of a eucalypt. Why they do this is unknown, but it is certainly a representation of how animated they are with their game faces on.

Although their populations lie scattered across Victoria’s designated regions, many call Kinglake National Park their home. The park itself covers over 20,000 hectares of bushland and is home to close to 600 species of plants, more than 40 native mammals and 90 species of birdlife (Parks Victoria). However, due to the fire devastation of 2009, in which 98% of native tree growth, consisting primarily of eucalypts, was burnt (Greenfleet Australia), as well as the loss of habitat caused by deforestation and the presence of non-native predators such as cats and foxes, numbers have dwindled. The brush-tailed phascogale is now sadly classified as ‘Vulnerable’ in status. 

However, since 2010 efforts have been made to establish native corridors in order to conserve biodiversity and ensure the brush-tailed phascogale has the chance to make a promising comeback. While it will take some time to see what eventuates, it is encouraging to see the steps that are being taken to ensure that this species can settle into its native habitat once more.

Brush-tailed phascogales are unique marsupials that play a major role in Victorian ecosystems. We as individuals and communities need to take steps to learn more about this species so that we can try to resolve the threats they are currently facing.

Priya Mohandoss is a Masters of Media and Communications student at Monash University. Currently, she reports for the Royal Society of Victoria, an organisation promoting science, and writes a column called “Environment Matters” for Kinglake Ranges community news magazine, Mountain Monthly. She is an avid explorer of all the facets that nature and the environment have to offer.

You can find her on Twitter at @pmoh1.

Banner image: Alex Mullarky