mammals

Finding a home for the Brush-tailed Phascogale

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 Brush-tailed Phascogale or Tuan. Note the dark stripe that runs down their face, ending at the nose.  Image: David Whelan

The Brush-tailed Phascogale or Tuan. Note the dark stripe that runs down their face, ending at the nose. Image: David Whelan

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.

The Brush-tailed Phascogale is listed as a threatened species in Victoria.  Image: David Whelan

The Brush-tailed Phascogale is listed as a threatened species in Victoria. Image: David Whelan

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.


Fur and Flowers: Melbourne's Mammalian Pollinators

This is a guest post by Mackenzie Kwak.

These days there’s a lot of buzz surrounding pollinators. When most of us think of them, our minds quickly turn to bees and butterflies. However, in Australia we have a diverse range of warm-blooded pollinators working through the night to keep our forests growing strong, and many of them call our city home.

Ancient Australia

Australia is a global hot spot for mammal pollinators. To better understand the close relationships between these warm-blooded creatures and their floral friends, we must turn our minds back millions of years to prehistoric Australia when flowers first appeared on the continent. For a very long time before the present day, Australia sat much farther south and at one point even stood where Antarctica now rests. At that time though, the globe was much warmer and plants could survive on this cool, southern continent known as Gondwana. Although polar forests flourished, temperatures still remained low, especially in winter when the forests often froze over. This provided a real challenge for plants eager to be pollinated.

Brushtail possums are one of the most common mammalian pollinators encountered around Melbourne.  Image: Wikimedia Commons

Brushtail possums are one of the most common mammalian pollinators encountered around Melbourne. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Insect pollinators were not common in Gondwana at this time due to one basic problem with their biology: cold blood. Insects are commonly described as cold-blooded or more accurately poikilothermic, meaning their body temperature fluctuates with the ambient temperature. However, insect body temperature can fluctuate so much that sometimes it rises far above that of mammals and birds,  making the term ‘cold-blooded’ a little erroneous. Fluctuating body temperature creates some major difficulties for insect pollinators - especially when the ambient temperature is close to freezing and pollination activity becomes impossible. It was these cool conditions that gave mammals their first real go at pollination in Australia. Mammals are warm-blooded, or, more technically, homeothermic, and can control their internal temperature even when the ambient temperature majorly fluctuates. This means that they remain active at much lower temperatures than their six-legged competitors and can exploit the rich nectar resources that plants have to offer. Over time, many mammals specialised to feed on this rich food and plants in turn modified their flowers to attract warm-blooded pollinators. 

Possums

Ringtail possums are another extremely common possum species of Melbourne.  Image: Emma Walsh

Ringtail possums are another extremely common possum species of Melbourne. Image: Emma Walsh

Possums are perhaps the most commonly encountered native mammals in the greater Melbourne region. Most folks view them with a strange combination of weak interest and mild irritation because of their all too common habit of taking up residency in our roofs. Possums, though, are important pollinators of many native trees and shrubs throughout Australia. We are most familiar with the common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) and common ringtail possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus) that are regular visitors to the flowers of gum trees. But while these two species supplement their diets of leaves with whole flowers, nectar and pollen, the real heavy lifters among the pollinating possums are the gliders.

In the greater Melbourne region the most common of these is the sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps), which incorporates a huge amount of pollen and nectar into its diet along with insects and tree sap. These little possums live in family groups, reside in tree hollows, and are important pollinators of Eucalyptus trees. Melbourne is also home to the world’s smallest glider, the feathertail glider (Acrobates pygmaeus), which weighs about 14 grams and is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. While these little possums are far from common, they can still be found in the forests near Frankston and in Melbourne’s north-east. Like the sugar glider, they are also voracious pollen feeders but supplement their diet with insects.  

It's no secret why we call this little possum species the feathertail glider!  Image: Wikimedia Commons

It's no secret why we call this little possum species the feathertail glider! Image: Wikimedia Commons

Bats

Bats are another group of mammal pollinators often viewed with some antipathy by the general public because of their noisiness and propensity towards raiding fruit trees. However, bats are much more important to Australia’s ecosystems than many people realise. It’s important to note that the majority of bats that call Melbourne home do not act as pollinators - these are the microbats and they are in fact carnivores or insectivores. The grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) is Melbourne’s only bat pollinator and reaches sizes far greater than its small carnivorous relatives, with wingspans up to one metre. Grey-headed flying foxes feed on a range of different flowers throughout the year but particularly favour the Myrtaceae family which includes the eucalypts, honey myrtles and tea trees, as well as the Proteaceae which includes the banksias and grevilleas. Fruit bats are not only important pollinators, but also critical seed dispersers for many native plants as well.

Dasyurids

Perhaps the strangest mammal pollinators to call the Melbourne region home are the Dasyurids, a group which few people have even heard of let alone considered as pollinators. For those unfamiliar with the often complex world of mammal taxonomy, the Dasyuridae is a family of mammals that includes quolls, Tasmanian devils, the now extinct Tasmanian tiger, and a range of other small, carnivorous marsupials. Many small Dasyurids resemble rodents superficially, but all possess a pouch which sets them apart. The genus Antechinus is one of these rodent-like groups of marsupials and Melbourne is home to three species: the swamp antechinus (Antechinus minimus), dusky antechinus (Antechinus swainsonii) and agile antechinus (Antechinus agilis). In other parts of Australia, Antechinus species are known as excellent pollinators of Banksia sp. but it remains unclear what role our Melburnian species may play in the pollination of local flora.

The agile antechinus is one of three  Antechinus  species to call Melbourne home.  Image: Wikimedia Commons

The agile antechinus is one of three Antechinus species to call Melbourne home. Image: Wikimedia Commons

It is not yet clear what role Melbourne's  Antechinus  species play in pollination.  Image: Wikimedia Commons

It is not yet clear what role Melbourne's Antechinus species play in pollination. Image: Wikimedia Commons

One Melbourne resident known to be a good pollinator is the brush-tailed phascogale, which resembles a squirrel but is actually a nocturnal, carnivorous marsupial. These secretive little mammals have been recorded gorging themselves on nectar and pollinating flowers with masses of pollen adhering to their furry muzzles. However, like many of our shy native marsupials, it is believed that the brush-tailed phascogale is sadly declining around the Melbourne region due to habitat loss.

So next time you see fruit bats glide overhead or hear a possum scurry across your roof, just remember the surprising task that these pollinators undertake. Although they may not be as glamorous or well-liked as native bees or butterflies, mammals are key pollinators of many of our native plants. It's now our responsibility to halt their decline, as losing them could be catastrophic. 


Mackenzie Kwak is a zoologist with a broad interest in Australia's diverse flora and fauna. His research focuses on the biogeography, systematics and ecology of Australasian ectoparasites, particularly ticks, fleas and lice. 

Banner image of a grey-headed flying fox courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Time + love = the wildlife art of Rachel Hollis.

The wildlife here is just so varied and colorful. Seeing it through British eyes was amazing. I loved it.

In the cities here, the wildlife is almost on your doorstep, you don’t have to go far to get to a National Park. Whereas, you know London – nature seems to be squeezed out of it.

Ian: Last month I was privileged to interview three amazing, up-and-coming wildlife artists about their work. In previous posts, Milly Formby and Kate Cranney talked about their art. This week’s post features the beautiful drawings of Rachel Hollis.

Rachel: I’m really pleased when I’ve drawn something that has a real likeness to what I am trying to illustrate but, at the same time, I’m not trying to get a photo-realist picture.

I want to create something that lets you see the character of what I’m drawing and something that triggers an emotional response in people: something they’ve seen before or that reminds them of their childhood or where they used to live.

Sometimes I think a drawing looks finished but I just know there’s something left that needs to be done. I’ll leave it there for a day or two and I’ll keep looking at it, and then suddenly I’ll think, “hang on, that needs to be changed.” It’ll just stand out.

It’s a feeling. You’ve got to give it a few days to realize it, but once those final details are in, then I know: that’s it.

I’m from the UK originally and we lived in Spain before we came to Australia.

I’ve always had a love for art and nature, but my wildlife drawings didn’t really come to life until I’d traveled more and had been to some stunning places and seen different species of birds and animals. Those experiences really encouraged me to start connecting the two: the wildlife and my art.

It’s only this year that I’ve started drawing wildlife, it’s still quite new for me.

Before I moved to Australia I mostly painted people in watercolor. My wildlife work is mainly in pencil and I haven’t tried wildlife in watercolour yet.

You never stop learning as an artist. You always try new techniques and different types of inspiration. I’m still learning.

When I’ve drawn something that I’m really happy with, I tend to put a little bit more extra time and love into it as well. Whereas if I’m struggling with a piece – I’m enjoying the process but maybe I don’t put as much emotional energy into it. And I think people can see that.

I’d encourage new artists to get out in nature and to find something they really enjoy – whether its birds or insects or anything – something specific that really touches them and moves them, and to use that in their art.

When you put a lot of love and time into something, it works out better.

All illustrations are by Rachel Hollis, used with permission. You can view more of Rachel’s work at her web site. Many thanks to all three artists for their enthusiastic conversation. The original transcript has been edited and condensed to improve readability.

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Beautiful like a blowfly: Kate Cranney’s wildlife art

I love trying to share how surprisingly beautiful ugly things can be – [like] centipedes crawling through the stomach of a dead sheep.

Ian: Last month I was privileged to interview three amazing, up-and-coming wildlife artists about their work. Last week’s post showcased Milly Formby. In this post, Kate Cranney talks about her love of nature and drawing. Stay tuned for next week’s instalment.

Kate: I grew up on a farm in western Queensland. I loved art as a kid, and I always loved being creative. I think the title pages on my projects in primary school were far more elaborate than the contents they held. Mum and dad always encouraged us to look closely at nature: at bower bird nests and cocoons and snake skins.

Growing up on a farm during the drought, there were lots of carcasses and flyblown sheep and dead fish in the dams. Maybe I was a little insensitive to, you know, how gross that might seem to other people, but I was always curious about that stuff. It was intriguing: seeing centipedes crawling through the stomach of a dead sheep.

I moved to Melbourne to study art but then I missed science so much that I changed my degree to a Masters of Botany. My artwork is focused on insects and fish; I do fine ink drawings with collage and watercolour. I started drawing with ink when I was taking public transport to uni. I couldn’t study on the ferry and bus or I’d get car-sick, so I drew.

I enjoy doing works that are aesthetically pleasing and educational as well. I’m working on a series called “Drawn to Science”. I’ll interview a research scientist and then do a drawing of their study subject. Recently I’ve been working on a project on insect ecology. Flies are beaut-i-ful underneath a microscope: they have metallic greens and blues and patterned wings. They’re stunning.

My favourite type of drawing is when I don’t know what I’m going to do before I start. Suddenly I’ll draw something and it’ll be something that I saw yesterday without realizing it. I think I store up memories of things that I’ve seen.

Paul Klee said, “drawing is taking a line for a walk” and I love the spontaneity of that. In a similar vein, I think the joy in creating makes it far easier for me to part with the work because I know that I had such a lovely time with that piece of paper.

You can draw wherever you are – when you’re on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere when you’re traveling. I always make sure I have access to pen and paper so that it’s always there.

I’m so happy to have art as part of my life now. It’s a core part of me. I squeeze it in – in the corners of the week. If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t be nearly as happy.

All illustrations are by Kate Cranney, used with permission. You can view more of Kate’s work at her web site. Many thanks to all three artists for their enthusiastic conversation. The original transcript has been edited and condensed to improve readability.

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