Melanie Wagner from the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife highlights the plight of the unique Mountain Pygmy Possum and the captive breeding program that may protect this highly vulnerable species from the threat of climate change.
At 11 cm long (head and body), with a tail up to 14 cm long, Mountain Pygmy-possums are small enough to fit comfortably in your hands. A Mountain Pygmy-possum weighs an enormous 45 grams! Tiny Mountain Pygmy-possums (Burramys parvus) hibernate during winter in snow laden boulder fields on the coldest slopes of the Snowy Mountains.
The Mountain Pygmy-possum is Australia’s only hibernating alpine marsupial, and it is the only marsupial in the world to hibernate for long periods under the snow during the coldest months of the year. In summer Mountain Pygmy-possums emerge to eat migrating Bogong moths, the fruits of the Mountain Plum-pine, berries, fleshy fruits, insects, nectar and seeds.
The Mountain Pygmy-possum was first found as a fossil. It was thought to be extinct until 1966 when a possum was discovered in a Mount Hotham ski resort in Victoria, Australia.
Fossil evidence for relatives of the Mountain Pygmy-possum has been discovered in four states of Australia. 20-10 million years ago, Burramys species were present at Riversleigh in Queensland. 24 million years ago, they existed at Lake Palankarinna in South Australia. More than a million years ago, they were to be found at Wombeyan in New South Wales. 4.5 million years ago, they lived at Hamilton in Victoria.
Today, Mountain Pygmy-possums exist within an area of less than 5 square kilometres. These possums live above altitudes of 1400 metres, in the Snowy Mountains of Southern NSW and North-Eastern VIC. There are three Mountain Pygmy-possum populations left, with major sub-populations located within ski resorts. The possums live at Mt Buller VIC, Mt Bogong-Mt Hotham VIC and Kosciuszko National Park NSW. As global temperatures increase, the possums’ habitat is receding as the snowline is pushed higher.
Mountain Pygmy-possums are under threat from climate change, habitat loss, inbreeding as populations become more isolated, feral cats and foxes, invasive plant species, depleted food sources, fires and human intervention into their habitats.
In 1990, the total Mountain Pygmy-possum population was estimated at 2635 individuals. In 2010, the population was estimated at 2075. In Mount Buller, one of the four remaining habitats of this possum, the Pygmy-possum population declined by 80%. Fewer than 500 individuals exist in NSW due to predation, loss of habitat, competition with skiers, and changed habitats resulting from climate change.
The Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife is working with key Mountain Pygmy-possum researchers to help save this possum. It is fundraising to establish a captive breeding program for the Mountain Pygmy-possum, with the support and guidance of Professor Michael Archer AM of the University of New South Wales, Dr Linda Broome of the NSW Office of Environment & Heritage, Trevor Evans of the Australian Ecosystems Foundation Inc., and research institutions such as the University of Sydney and the University of New England.
The objectives of the captive breeding program are to:
• Increase Mountain Pygmy-possum population numbers.
• Increase the genetic diversity of this species, which has become limited due to the four remaining wild populations remaining geographically isolated from each other.
• Provide an insurance population for the introduction into the current range in case wild populations continue to decline.
• Provide stock for experimental introductions into currently unoccupied habitat in the Kosciuszko National Park.
• Assess the ability of the Mountain Pygmy-possum to breed and maintain populations in a warmer climate than their current habitat.
• Conduct experimental releases into areas of habitat less vulnerable to climate change, such as lowland rainforest and wet forest where this distinct lineage of possums thrived during the last 24 million years.
The Mountain Pygmy-possum could be the very first animal which is adapted by scientific breeding programs to be reintroduced into a completely different habitat, as its alpine habitat is under intense threat from climate change.