Saving the Mountain Pygmy-possum (Burramys parvus)

Mountain Pygmy-possum

(Photo by Linda Broome)

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Mountain Pygmy-possum in torpor

(Photo by Karen Watson)

Mountain Pygmy-possums are the only true hibernating alpine marsupial of Australia. The species lineage have been a part of our ecosystem for 24 million years, surviving in cool temperate lowland rainforest. They were first found as a 10,000 year old fossil and were thought to be extinct, until a live one was discovered at Mt Hotham ski lodge in 1960s. Currently the species are distributed in three fragmented populations down in the Snowy Mountains. Threats to their survival include habitat loss, impacts of tourism, an increase in bushfires, decline of their primary food source (Bogong moths), impacts of climate change, and predation from introduced species. As a result, Mountain Pygmy-possums have become critically endangered (as listed under the IUCN red list), with the population trend decreasing. There are less than 2000 species left in the wild. This is our last chance to save the species.

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Decline in Bogong moths (Agrotis infusa)

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Photo by Ajay Narendra

Bogong moths are the Mountain Pygmy-possums primary food source and are a crucial part of the Australian alpine ecosystem. Bogong moths usually migrate thousands of kilometres across south-Eastern Australian to stay in the alpine environments over summer, where they inhabit caves. However, over the last couple of years, they have hardly been around. Research suggests that the decline could be caused by drought conditions in their breeding areas as a result of climate change, and human development in their migration paths which interrupt the moths nocturnal journey. You can make an impact by turning off outdoor lights in the months of September and October.

Breeding Centre and Climate Adaptation Project 

The construction of a Mountain Pygmy-possum breeding centre at AEFI's reserve Secret Creek Sanctuary will allow for an insurance population onsite. This will enable us to increase the genetic diversity within the population and widen their environmental range through experimental acclimatisation for release into modern lowland, cool wet forest environments such as Lithgow.

 

AEFI have been working closely with key researchers in Australia's biodiversity, including Senior Threatened Species Officer Dr Linda Broome of the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (DECCW) as well as Dr Hayley Bates and Professor Mike Archer from the University of New South Wales (UNSW). This crucial conservation project is bringing a range of experts and agencies together, and is also being undertaken with the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife, the University of Sydney and the Office and Environment and Heritage (OEH). It has also attracted much needed financial support from Australian Geographic, Prague Zoo and Paddy Pallin. 

After 20 months, working through obstructions such as COVID-19 and flooding events, we completed the construction of the breeding center, brought in 14 Mountain Pygmy Possums from the Victorian Alps and had Prague Zoo representatives visit on 19th April 2022.

“We’ve now got a facility that will enable these alpine possums to adapt to a very different environment of the kind that their ancestors enjoyed and thrived in for millions of years. The breeding facility will provide the bridge to help them transition back into those far more comfortable environments and survive the lethal changes coming to the alpine zone,” says AEFI Secretary Trevor Evans. It’s just great to be able to finally see this dream – which has been decades in the making – turn into reality.”

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Prague Zoo visit on 19th April. From the right: Trevor Evans (Owner of Secret Creek Sanctuary), UNSW Professor Mike Archer, Prague Zoo Director Miroslav Bobek and Czech Republic Ambassador Tomas Hub.

AEFI President Bob Sutor doing a smoking ceremony on the day

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Mountain Pygmy Possum Breeding Centre from the outside

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Research area in the centre

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Habitat cages with rock-walls 

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Observation area

How does it all work? 

The breeding centre comprises various outdoor enclosures with a central and thermally stable, insulated rock wall containing nest boxes deep inside. There is an option for the possums to go inside an air-conditioned nest box or to an outdoor environment, allowing them the options to acclimatise. The thermal refuge room enables us to move possums indoors if temperatures exceed the insulating capacity of the nest bank or in case of a fire. To maintain a cool and moist environment, a sprinkler system will mist the enclosures during hot, dry conditions. The breeding centre has quarantine rooms, animal preparation room, storage room, food preparation area, research and observation room and an office area.

The breeding program will use a low disturbance approach, keeping animal handling to a minimum. Monitoring cameras and microchip readers will keep records of all the possums. The program will remain in close contact with Healesville Sanctuary breeding program in Victoria and their advisory group to increase conservation success for both locations. There will be opportunities for innovative research projects for university students in relation to the breeding centre and climate adaptation project. Students will be able to examine why the Mountain Pygmy-possum is currently restricted to habitats above the winter snow line and discover if translocations will enable the species to thrive into a warmer future. A critical part in the preservation of the species is to carry out research to see what temperatures the possums can adapt, in the hope that they can widen their environmental range to be reintroduced back into warmer climates and different habitats. Given their natural snowy habitat is disappearing, this is their only option for survival into the future.

The possums are thriving in the new habitat we created – they’ve now had 6 possum babies since moving in. Congratulations to all involved!

Help us preserve an important species of Australia’s biodiversity so that ecosystems remain in balance.