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

A Walk in the Wild

This is a guest post by Bruna Costa

The Goulburn Valley Highway weaves northbound through central Victoria, and on approaching the town of Nagambie, a side street turns left and proceeds along the concrete bridge built to replace the collapsing historical Chinaman’s Bridge. It spans across the Goulburn River that flows down the length of Gilgai Stud Farm, home of Black Caviar, its white picket fence defining the entrance. Bordered by open pastures, the asphalt road meanders past lucerne fields and wheat crops, flocks of sheep and herds of cattle that graze on sun-drenched paddocks. Further on, the road merges onto a dusty gravel thoroughfare riddled with ruts and potholes, and continues through the State Forest of yellow box, Chinese bush and pepper trees. Mullock hills dot the forest along the way, as do the sparse, abandoned weatherboard houses and their rusting corrugated tin sheds.

The graded road leads to a gate painted silver and chained to a post leaning towards the pull of old rusted wires of a dilapidated fence. Box-ironbark and more Chinese bush, wattle, prickly grevilleas and parrot-pea shrubs grace a large part of the property.

A family of superb fairy-wrens forage in the grasses and low-lying shrubs for seeds: enough to share with the red-capped and hooded robins. Although the invasive Chinese bush, otherwise known as the Sifton bush, is an introduced plant, it does provide an abundance of seeds for small bird species, and an ideal shelter from weather conditions and predators.

Mobs of eastern grey kangaroos and the solitary brown wallaby emerge from the forest in late afternoon to scratch for roots in the barren soil baked dry by a hot sun. In marked contrast, the gravel mounds of industrious meat-eating ants nests ensure a stable, moderate temperature in their incubating tunnels beneath the surface. If ever a heroic invertebrate, say the centipede or a roaming beetle, crosses their territory, the ants go into a feeding frenzy and summon others from below ground to help dissect the invasive creatures. However, the voracious echidna has no fear of meat-eaters. It ploughs into the ant nest and consumes all it wants. And perhaps the elusive bearded dragon and stumpy-tailed lizard basking near the grey tree stumps may also partake in such a feast.

High above the stratus clouds, the wedge-tailed eagle searches for large prey, unperturbed by screeching sulphur-crested cockatoos that broadcast their messages across the plains or the pied currawongs that carol for rain. Red wattlebirds share the higher reaches of the forest with the noisy friarbirds as they seek respite from the midday heat.

Thirsty honey bees queue along a wooden plank, of which one end reaches the dregs of water in a bathtub, their need to taste the dwindling liquid as urgent as that of the yellow-tufted honeyeaters, willy wagtails and eastern rosellas that side-step along the same plank to take a decidedly necessary sip.

Leaving its mark on a eucalyptus branch, the elusive mistletoe bird ensures the future growth of red berries in the mistletoe itself. All the while, the mini willy-willy picks up dust and tosses it over grasshoppers that seek refuge in the sandstone rocks exposed by a lack of vegetation.

Come winter, swift parrots and rainbow lorikeets prune fresh tips from box-ironbark, leaving a smattering of eucalyptus blossom over composted foliage on the ground. Together, cream flowers and green moss create a natural patchwork on a moistened surface. A smattering of rocks covered in lichen complete an alluring picture.

In the clearing, welcome swallows engage in energetic flight. Skimming the ground, they rise up into the sky until the noisy miner expels its warning call to those in earshot. The peregrine falcon is on the hunt. It shoots across the plain, its keen eye fixed on movement amongst the leaves of an aged manna gum. The bird of prey soars from the tree, grasping its catch in sharp talons and disappearing into the distant canopy of eucalypts. White-winged choughs plane aimlessly through the sky while magpies parade along the ground and ignore the rhythmic call of the bronzewing that echoes through the undergrowth .

The brown snake slithers into hibernation unnoticed.

Spring arrives and sprays of wattle burst from branches after the constant rainfalls. Strong-scented blooms drive a native bee into a state of euphoria as it buries into the fluffy substance and draws nectar from the golden flurry.

Spring also exposes the spotted pardalotes as they prepare their nests in hollowed ground. And thornbills, warblers and tree-creepers pick out sap-sucking insects on stringy bark and grey box tree trunks. Willy wagtails fill the air with their chatter, performing a song and dance to draw attention away from their nest built on an unused bucket in the outhouse. The nest is cleverly stitched together with silk threads from a borrowed cobweb and is brimming with chicks. And while the lone golden whistler, perched high on a limb, calls for a mate, the crimson rosella emits a soulful note when all else is quiet in the bush.

Notably still is the red-bellied black snake as it basks in the warm sun beside the overflow of the dam, lying in wait for the pobblebonk and other frogs that trumpet their intentions to females in the rain-soaked flats.

The Sifton bush, in its dying stages, purges its last signs of life by exuding an attractive orange fungus - a striking contrast to the mauve native orchids that emerge from rhizomes buried underground; a splash of colour against an otherwise tired and dreary vegetation.  Or is it?

Carnivorous Victorian Drosera stand like sentinels, their insatiable urge being to lure hungry insects into their gaping traps. But in a field of thousands and with constant rain depleting their supply of invertebrates, few will achieve digestive satisfaction in such a competitive environment. Seemingly insignificant are the native flora speckled across the soggy planes in shades of burgundy and white; a welcoming phenomenon in a flooded plain.

Fields of golden daisies, considered weeds, stretch as far as the horizon. And most remarkable of all, the hieroglyphics created by tiny termites on fallen logs, soon to become obsolete with their total disintegration while new growth sprouts alongside the breakdown of bark, timber and seeds.

This is where humans go to reconnect with all that is wonderful on our planet Earth.

All photos by Bruna Costa.

Suburban Serpents: Be Aware, Not Alarmed

Melbourne is home to an array of fascinating animals. From the sulfur-crested cockatoo that chews on your windowsills to the common brushtail possum that lives above your bedroom, none of them are as unwelcome and misunderstood as the wild, venomous snake.

The thing that makes these snakes so formidable is not their fangs, but their venom glands. These modified salivary glands produce venom: a toxic secretion that is intended to immobilize, partially digest, or kill the snake’s prey. When biting into its subject, a venomous snake will squeeze its venom glands. In the case of snakes with grooved fangs, the venom will run down the grooves and into the subject’s flesh. In Victoria, our venomous snakes fall into the family Elapidae, which means that they have grooved, fixed fangs at the front of their upper jaw, with the venom gland sitting just behind them, below the eye. Their venom is mainly neurotoxic, which means that it primarily affects nerve function. So if you get the shakes around these serpents, just imagine how their prey feels!

However, Victoria is also home to a few species of non-venomous snakes. These snakes, such as pythons, lack venom glands and fangs, and so kill their prey by other means. In regards to pythons, these snakes will bite onto their subject and wrap around them in order to constrict them. Two species of pythons (Pythonidae) are found in Victoria: the Murray-Darling carpet python (Morelia spilota metcalfei) and the diamond python (Morelia spilota spilota). Unfortunately (or luckily, depending on who you talk to) these beautiful pythons are not found around our city, and are only found in much wilder areas. Blind snakes of the family Thyphlopidae are also found in Victoria, but these are mostly subterranean and are rarely encountered.

The distinct pattern of the diamond python is what gives it its name.  Image: Peter Robertson

The distinct pattern of the diamond python is what gives it its name. Image: Peter Robertson

In regards to Melbourne’s locals, several different species of elapid snakes (that’s right, the venomous, potentially deadly kind) call Greater Melbourne home. The three most commonly encountered snakes in Melbourne are the eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textilis), the lowland copperhead (Austrelaps superbus) and the tiger snake (Notechis scutatus).

Eastern brown snakes grow to around 1.5 metres long, and are responsible for more deaths than any other snake in Australia. Commonly found in the northern and western suburbs of Greater Melbourne, this species is true to its name and is known to range from a light faun to near black in colour. This elapid prefers open woodlands, scrublands and grasslands, and feeds mainly on small vertebrates and their eggs. Additionally, this species is also the neighbourhood pest control: their diet consists mostly of invasive mice and rats. The eastern brown often reacts defensively and will strike readily if threatened.

Lowland copperheads are usually found in the northern and eastern suburbs of Greater Melbourne, and can grow to approximately 1.45 metres in length. They are blackish to grey-brown in colour, with their name referring to the orange-brown colouring in some individuals. Lowland copperheads usually inhabit grassland, heathland, woodlands and open scrubland, but are often found close to a water source, feeding on ectothermic animals such as reptiles and amphibians. You can think of this species as the hermit that lives around the corner and likes to keep to themselves.  Secretive and reluctant to strike, this species will hiss loudly and flatten its body to intimidate its threat, and will even thrash about. Further provocation will cause the snake to bite. 

Although most likely a juvenile lowland copperhead, this photo shows the difficulty in identifying some species of snake based on their often subtle markings.  Image: Emma Walsh

Although most likely a juvenile lowland copperhead, this photo shows the difficulty in identifying some species of snake based on their often subtle markings. Image: Emma Walsh

The tiger snake is most commonly encountered in the western suburbs of Greater Melbourne and gets its name from the yellow and black bands across the body of some individuals, although the most common form is dark- to blackish-brown with off-white to yellowish bands. The average length of this species is 1.2 metres, but individuals can range in length from one to two metres. Tiger snakes are garbage guts, and feed on a wide variety of vertebrates including fish, frogs and tadpoles, lizards, birds, and mammals, and will even feed on carrion. This elapid is generally quite shy, but is capable of exhibiting an impressive threat display. It hisses aggressively at its threat whilst inflating and deflating its body, and if provoked further it will strike.

Snakes are crucial to the ecosystems found around Melbourne and act as mid-level predators. They control prey numbers, including invasive species such as invasive mice and rats, but they also provide a food source to higher-level predators such as birds of prey.  Although these snakes are formidable and potentially dangerous, it is important to remember that they will only strike a human in defence. They do not see us as a food source, but rather as a huge animal that could potentially harm or prey on them. They are trying to defend themselves against us, just as we are trying to defend ourselves against them!

From left to right, the eastern brown snake, the lowland copperhead and the tiger snake. Images: Peter Robertson

There are many ways to minimise the chance of having an encounter with one of these fascinating and largely misunderstood creatures. When working or bushwalking outdoors in the warmer months, wear long pants, thick socks and sturdy shoes to protect your legs and feet. When lifting any object that a snake could shelter under, such as a log or a sheet of metal, make sure you lift the object in a way that provides an easy, unhindered escape by lifting the edge furthest away from you. If you are exploring the great outdoors, always take a first aid kit with pressure bandages, and stick to the paths – it is much easier to see a snake on a dirt track than it is amongst thick vegetation.

If you do encounter a snake, do not attempt to move or kill the snake. Most snake bites occur because someone has unsuccessfully tried to interact with the snake and has frightened it. It is important that if you do encounter a snake that you understand its behaviour. Tongue flicking, hissing, a raised head or a neck bent back in an s-shape are all signs that the snake feels threatened, and that it is best to leave it alone. Of course, if a snake bite does occur, call 000 immediately and apply pressure to the bite site.

Snakes have a reputation for being aggressive and ruthless, but in reality the slithering serpents feel threatened by us and are ready to defend themselves the only way they know how. By respecting them and giving them their space, we can share our habitat and maybe lose some invasive rodents in the meantime!


Banner image courtesy of Stephen Zozaya