The small grey marsupial pushed her pointed snout under a loose piece of bark, halfway up an ancient gum tree. She could smell food – a large huntsman spider, which she hastily caught and crunched between her sharp teeth. She was a Brush-tailed Phascogale or Tuan, the dark stripe down her face barely visible in the night. Her sharp claws were poised to lift another strip of bark, her pink ears listening for danger, when air movement on this still night alerted her at the last moment. She stamped her front feet on the tree trunk. The long black hairs on the brush-like portion of her tail stood up. The owl’s talons reached for her conspicuous tail as she ran. It caught only a few hairs as she ducked behind the trunk. She fled for the safety of a nearby hollow.
The hollow entrance was about three to four centimetres wide, just big enough for the phascogale to enter, while securely keeping out predators, such as owls and cats. In the spacious interior was a woven nest of bark, feathers and fur. She would move from this hollow soon to another in her forty-hectare territory. She would use up to thirty hollows if she could find them, but there were insufficient trees in her territory old enough to have hollows. Competition with possums, birds and bees for these precious spaces was intense. This one may be occupied when she next returned.
The female was about seven months old and had recently left her mother’s nest and found her own territory not far away. Her body and tail were each about 18 centimetres long. She was nocturnal, emerging from her hollow at dusk to hunt, usually in trees, but occasionally on the ground. Mostly she ate spiders, centipedes, cockroaches and other insects, but sometimes she drank nectar or caught a napping bird or small mammal. She was capable of killing a chicken, which Brush-tailed Phascogales will occasionally do, if they can find a small hole to enter a chicken coop.
In May or June, it will be breeding season - a very intense few weeks, especially for the males, who use a lot of energy in competition and mating, then die from stress-induced illnesses. After the breeding season, there will be no males. One month later the female will give birth to her litter. She has eight teats, and her babies will attach to them, so she carries them everywhere. When they are about seven weeks old, she will leave them in a carefully woven nest, under a layer of fur and feathers. Initially she will only hunt for a short time, returning for long visits to suckle and warm her babies. As they become older, she will visit less. At around three months old, she will start to bring solid food for them. The young will leave the nest in early summer to find their own territory. Rearing young takes a lot of effort, and the female may be one of the small number who survive to breed a second time.
Brush-tailed Phascogales are a threatened species in Victoria, which means there is a threat of them becoming extinct. Much of the dry eucalypt forest they prefer has been cleared for agriculture, or changed through grazing, mining, forestry and firewood collection. Patches of suitable habitat may be separated from each other, limiting the area in which young phascogales can disperse, and their ability to move to a new area and to find mates. They are also preyed on by foxes and cats as well as their natural predators.
Another threat is the loss of hollows for shelter and nesting. In 2016, the Friends of Brisbane Ranges (FoBR) received a grant from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) which allowed them to install fifty nest-boxes in the Brisbane Ranges National Park. They are designed to suit phascogales, with small entrance holes and spacious interiors. Students from Wyndham Central College in Werribee, who visit the park for environmental studies, were involved in making and installing the boxes. FoBR also conducted a successful crowdfunding campaign, which has allowed the project to continue, and supported the creation of a network of groups involved in similar projects elsewhere.
In 2017, FoBR was thrilled to be chosen by Remember The Wild as one of the groups whose story would be told through the Community Conservationists initiative, highlighting the plight of these little-known marsupials and the work of the inspirational students involved in the project.
Hopefully, the nest-boxes will provide additional homes for Brush-tailed Phascogales, and may also free up some of the limited number of natural hollows for other species. So far, there are about seventy nest-boxes on tree trunks in the Brisbane Ranges National Park being explored by furry visitors, or perhaps already occupied, and the nest-box project continues.
Wendy Cook lives on a farm west of Melbourne with her husband and two teenagers. She loves watching the nature she sees around her every day and writing about it. She is a volunteer with Fungimap and at her local primary school where she hopes to instil a love of nature and reading in the children.