Cuteness in the palm of your hand: the Western Pygmy Possum

Posted on Posted in furry, Mallee, South Australia

Lauren makes her BIG debut with this piece on Western Pygmy Possums, the species she is studying for her honours research project…

With their floppy ears, tiny curled tail and puppy dog eyes, the Western Pygmy Possum (Cercartetus concinnus) is the cutest creature to fit in the palm of your hand…however I am slightly biased… and here’s why.

Western Pygmy Possum (Cercartetus concinnus). (Photo by L. Engledow)

As part of my honours project at the University of Adelaide, I have been in search of the Western Pygmy Possum. Weighing an average of just 13g, these tiny possums are one of Australia’s smallest marsupials. Patchily distributed across southern Australia, Western Pygmy Possums (WPPs) can be found in southern WA and SA, and western VIC and NSW. Unfortunately due to habitat loss and fragmentation and predation by foxes and cats, WPPs are listed as endangered in NSW and threatened in VIC.

WPPs are rarely seen due to their cryptic and nocturnal nature. They are mostly arboreal; spending much of their time hidden in trees. It is here that they move stealthily and carefully between branches, foraging through leaves in search of nectar, pollen and invertebrates. These possums can breed at any time during the year, having up to three consecutive litters of six if conditions are ideal.

WPPs are found in the Middleback Ranges; a semi-arid mallee system, with a eucalypt upperstorey and hummock grass (Triodia irritans) dominated understory. (Photo by L. Engledow)

My study is taking place in the Middleback Ranges SA, where the WPP population is known to fluctuate quite dramatically. My aim is to find out a little more about why this is the case. I head out each month to monitor the population using pitfall traps. How are they caught in traps on the ground when they spend so much time in trees? Well, WPPs cannot glide (unlike some of their close relatives) and must therefore cross the ground or jump (and sometimes fall!) to get to the next tree. WPPs are particularly mobile during windy weather and can even be blown out of trees increasing their chance of falling into a trap.

If we are lucky enough to have caught a possum, they are usually found curled up in a ball. They may be having a snooze or be in a much deeper sleep, known as torpor. This is like a mini hibernation period used to conserve energy during harsh weather conditions or when food availability is low.

When in torpor, WPPs are found with their ears folded around their face, tail curled towards their body and fists in balls covering their eyes. Torpor can last from as little as one day up to two weeks. (Photo by L. Engledow)

Let’s hope by finding out more about the ecology of this species, we can help manage populations and prevent further decline now and in the future. How can we afford to lose a face like this?

4 thoughts on “Cuteness in the palm of your hand: the Western Pygmy Possum

  1. I fell for them when I saw one in the Adelaide Museum and have written a children’s story (unpublished) about two Western Pigmy Possums who love the sea and sailing. I also love the sea (and love sailing years ago) and S.A’s mallee bush. I hope you continue with your studies. Maybe the spinifex grass offers protection. Good luck!

  2. I found a minuture pygamy possum today alive and well but no mother so i took it to a wildlife rescure park where they are going to look after it until it can be released back in to the wildthey are very cute little animal

  3. Lauren, I think we found a western pygmy possum at Coffin Bay- near , (in torpor, – 15 minues or so, once active, released in nectar banksia area nearby) It’s ears looked quite a bit smaller and was smaller than a mouse. Same species? Can contact me through fb if you like where I posted a few pics or also posted on fauna rescue sa site on fb- cheers

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