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Species of the week: Mountain Pygmy Possum

By on September 5, 2011 in Species of the Week, Uncategorized

Cute but tough, the mountain pygmy possum (Burramys parvus) is a highly unusual marsupial and the largest of Australia’s five pygmy possums. Unlike most possums, the mountain pygmy possum is not arboreal, although it can easily climb shrubs and has a prehensile tail. This nocturnal species spends the day curled up into a ball to retain heat. True to its name, the mountain pygmy possum lives amongst rock screes and boulderfields in the ‘Australian Alps.’ It can be found at elevations of 1,500-1,800 meters, where the climate is cold and wet, with frequent snow-falls and powerful winds.

Despite been first describe in 1896 from fossils, the species was assumed to be extinct for several decades. In 1966 after several sighting at ski lodges a specimen was taken to a museum for identification.  They discovered it was related to the fossil but did not believe the species could possibly live at such a high altitudes.  Because people kept looking in the wrong place, at lower altitudes, no more specimens were found until 1970 when they realised that these animals indeed inhabit the rocky mountaintops.

Living at high altitude, the species hibernates under a blanket of snow during the winter months (May to September). During this time the animals live off fat reserves built up during the ‘active period’ Possums are nocturnal and during the ‘active season’, which runs from October to April, will feed primarily on the high energy Bogong moth (Agrotis infusa), which arrives in the Australian Alps in large numbers in the summer months. In the late summer and autumn, when there are fewer moths around, these pygmy-possums switch their diet to seeds and berries.

Not only does this species live in an extreme environment; but it is also one of the longest living small terrestrial mammals known, with females being able to live for over 12 years.  The social females occupy communal nesting sites and have overlapping ranges while the males are more nomadic, coming in contact with females mostly to breed. This takes place at the start of the ‘active season’ when there is plenty of high energy food available. Females give birth to four young which develop in the pouch for a few weeks before being transferred to a grass nest.

It is currently believed that there are fewer than 2,000 individuals left of this critically endangered species. The Mountain Pygmy Possum is restricted to three geographically isolated populations in south east Australia. The species’ habitat is being destroyed or fragmented by rock extraction for dam/aqueduct construction and the development of infrastructure for the downhill skiing industry. Furthermore, this species reliance on snow-fall for insulation during hibernation means its suitable habitat is decreasing as a result of global warming.

ARKive video - Mountain pygmy-possum - overview

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