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

Getting to know Gariwerd

From burning to booming (and back again) - a tale of fire and water. 

Back in 2006, a major wildfire burned approximately 85,000 hectares of the Grampians National Park. Lightning sparked the blaze and a burning question – how will the system respond to this large, high intensity fire? Although we didn’t know it at the time, this event was the forerunner to the birth of a long term study and partnership. Every year for the past nine years, a Deakin Wildlife and Conservation Biology Honours student has taken on the task of delivering the Grampians mammal trapping.  Without fail, these students have (with some trepidation) dived into the experience before emerging triumphant and as confident and competent researchers. 

We annually trap 36 study sites throughout the park. When the trapping first began, we were inundated by exotic species (mostly the invasive house mouse). The region was recently burnt but was also in the grips of the ‘Millennium Drought’ – not an ideal situation. After a few more years of poor rain, the landscape was drenched for the first time in many years and with that, the drought was broken (but sadly not for long!). With the downpour came an uprising.

In 2012, 18 months after the deluge, the mammal numbers had boomed, doubling from the previous year and almost four times the numbers of the first year. The sheer amount of mammals was not the only change; the composition had shifted to a landscape dominated by native species. This was an exciting time with the smoky mouse being detected for the first time in the study, as well as an albino heath mouse and many bandicoots carrying pouch young captured.

While these conditions seemed to be conducive to small mammals, it presented a number of challenges for our research team. Many roads crumbled during the onslaught of rain, making access incredibly difficult and time consuming. After many kilometres at a snail’s pace, help from the Parks Victoria quad bike, and a series of turnarounds, trapping was completed. 

Following on from this boom the rainfall once again began to decline. As a result, the mammal numbers followed suit before stabilising at low numbers from 2014 onwards. Native species are still managing to dominate the landscape, although in the last two years the number of house mice has begun to increase – funnily enough there were 127 captures in both 2015 and 2016, what are the chances!? As these conditions have unfolded, we have seen an incredible opportunity to investigate the impacts of future climate change. Future scenarios outline an era where there is a highly variable climate, with protracted periods of below average rainfall punctuated by flooding events. It was like looking in a mirror! 

Since we began our investigation into the effects of variable climate, our research has yielded some unexpected results. What we have found indicates that our temperate system is acting much like the arid regions of Australia. In arid zones, mammals experience booms and busts associated with the sporadic rainfall that these areas receive. What we’ve found is that our system (originally thought to be more predictable and stable in that sense) was responding this way as well. 

With native species showing a preference for areas that remain unburnt for longer, the pattern of wildfire occurrence becomes increasingly worrying; with larger and more regular fires looking to become the norm, the future of our native species may be threatened.  In the last 10 years alone, approximately 90% of the Grampians National Park has experienced wildfire (in 2006, 2013 and 2014!), leaving very few long unburnt areas. This means that the distribution of fire age classes is less than optimal for small mammals.

The interaction between the effects of fire and climate create a complex web to manage for biodiversity; it does, however, provide hope. We have seen populations bounce back from almost undetectable levels, so as long as conditions don’t remain sub-optimal for extended periods and large, high intensity wildfires do not increase in number, experienced species should have the capacity to recover.

Our experience in the Grampians has been amazing, and thought-provoking. We have realised the significance of and invaluable knowledge obtained from long term studies, especially when facing the uncertainty of the effects of future climate change. It allows us to observe the peaks and troughs experienced by a system that may have been overlooked or undetectable in a snap shot study. While snap shot studies are important, we need to value and support long term studies, particularly as the onset of climate change intensifies.

Check out our latest paper from our Grampians research here.  

Follow our research on Twitter @Wild_Gramps

This is a guest post by Deakin University PhD student Susannah Hale and Associate Professor John White.

All images taken by Susannah Hale

In Conversation with Professor David Lindenmayer: Part 3

Professor David Lindenmayer of the Australian National University is one of our country's foremost ecologists. An outspoken conservationist, David uses his decades of experience and years of scientific studies to support his argument for a Great Forest National Park, in our state of Victoria, a move supported by Wild Melbourne, and a host of other NGO's.  

With the recent release of the video advertising his proposal for the GFNP, now seems like the right time to revisit a conversation I had with him late last year. 

In this third and final part of the interview, David describes the nature and plight of our State Emblem, the Leadbeater's Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri).

The Leadbeater's Possum ( Gymnobelideus leadbeateri ): Curtesy of 

The Leadbeater's Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri): Curtesy of 

The leadbeaters possum is a small marsupial weighing about 140 grams. Small enough to fit in your hand, they stand out with their long club like tail. However, it is not for this tail that their name is derived - rather, they are named for the taxidermist from the Victorian museum who described them: John Leadbeater.

What’s interesting, David says, is that they “move like Grease-Lightening… they’re much quicker than squirrels… and they live in colonies… ruled by a single dominant female.”

While small marsupials tend to be colonial (often for protection from predators and to keep warm), the Leadbeaters are unique in having a matriarchal society.

David notes that “The colony needs a number of nest trees to survive, not just one big old tree.” 

While the number of individuals in a colony can vary with season, David says he has noted a decline in the overall size of colonies, from 8 to 12 individuals down to an average of two. He says that logging old growth trees is an issue, as a tree often needs to be over 150 years old before it will form the hollows that these possums require for nests. Furthermore, as young forests are more fire prone, these animals are subjected to an increasing frequency of fires.

He notes that there is a cycle whereby fires tend to occur in areas previously logged, but that we are also more likely to log areas effected by fire (a process called salvage logging), and so forests are being driven to a younger and younger age.

“It becomes quite a vicious cycle… we log the forest and the habitat quality is immediately reduced for up to 150 years…  when the forest burns animals die on site, but then we’re also likely to salvage log it.”

Because of this, David and his collaborators have written a strategy for the conservation of the species and its habitat.    

“One of the things that have to happen is that every single remaining big old tree has to be conserved. Another thing… is that areas that are more likely to be old growth need to be left alone in the landscape and allowed to grow.”

“Animals basically go through local extinction… in places like Lake Mountain where they've been lost… we have to conserve every possible place where the animal is left over.”

Of course, tree hollows are imperative to a lot of Australian fauna, and so David’s plan may help to conserve numerous native species, but given the dire situation of these possums, the emphasis is on them.

“One of the key issues really is that the Leadbeaters possum is emblematic of a series of problems… it is a symptom of poor management of a system... If we can’t manage Leadbeaters possum… we simply aren’t able to manage these forests… when we talk about recovering the Leadbeaters possum we’re really talking about recovering the whole forest.”

Because of this, David has proposed the concept of a new nature reserve encompassing the entire range of the Possum.

“I think it is absolutely critical that we have a new giant forest national park - Absolutely critical. That is non-negotiable.”

He further declares a need to remove logging from the system, and to get the community involved.

“This is a major park for Victorians and Australians, and they need to fight for this, for the sensible use of its resources… People [also] need to start using their own purchasing power to make a difference… if they buy recycled paper, if they don’t buy pure-white Reflex paper that will mean there is no market for that paper, which is Leadbeaters possum habitat.”

David explains that people have the power to demand that the best be made of these parks – which are public land, and he concludes that supporting these ecosystems also means supporting the communities in and around them.

“The infrastructure needs to be put into towns like Marysville, like Warburton, like Healesville…where we can see the tangible benefits.”

In a final summary of his work and his passion, Professor Lindenmayer leaves me with these words:

“I have a strong belief in the science… I am a Victorian; I was born in Victoria… I am passionate about the state and I want to see the state manage its resources in the best way possible.”

- Professor David Lindenmayer.