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.

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