Pygmy possums caught on camera

I usually write about the plants and animals that we are likely to encounter in the backyard, or while walking through local forests, or walking the dog around our lakes. But this month, I wanted to introduce you to a very endearing little marsupial that lives in the Wombat Forest but is rarely ever seen.

Pygmy possum caught on camera

The Eastern Pygmy possum has been photographed recently in a beautiful patch of forest south of Blackwood.  The tiny possums were captured by an infra-red camera, one of several cameras stationed around thirty sites across  the Wombat Forest by Wombat Forestcare team, as part of the Caught on Camera project. To the untrained eye, the little creature inspecting the bait in a tea strainer could be a bush rat, or an Agile Antechinus, one of the most common marsupials of the forest. But the Pygmy Possum has a quite different body shape to these animals, more stout and cuddly,  bigger rounder ears, with a fat prehensile tail.

Eastern Pygmy Possums have a brush-tipped tongue; used to gather pollen and nectar from flowers such as banksia and tea-tree. When the banksias and other flowers are not in flower,  the possums will eat invertebrates such moths, spiders, grasshoppers and beetles.  The possums shelter in tree hollows, but they also make little spherical nest balls, woven from short, shredded bark and hidden in eucalypt tree bark, old bird nests and in shrubs such as tea trees… One pygmy possum may regularly use ten of these little dens!

eastern pygmy possum north head manly

This little guy was photographed during a reintroduction of Eastern Pygmy Possums to a reserve in Sydney called North Head, managed by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy – see here for more

The old names listed for the Eastern Pygmy Possum are so quaint: Common Dormouse-phalanger, Dormouse Opossum and Possum Mouse!  The Dormouse name probably refers to the ability that pygmy possums have to go into torpor – a light hibernation.  The possums roll into a tight little ball, with their ears folded down and their body’s internal temperature similar to that of the surroundings. They may spend large periods in winter conserving energy in this way, until the banksias come into flower again, or insect activity ramps up in warmer months.

There are several pygmy possum species around Australia, and surprisingly, the Eastern Pygmy Possum at 24 grams in weight is by no means the smallest of the group – the Little Pygmy Possum  weighs only 7 grams! These little cuties are much more carnivorous than the Eastern Pygmy Possum – their favourite food is very small lizards. The most famous of the pygmy possums,  the endangered Mountain Pygmy Possum uses this ability to go into torpor as a crucial survival tool in its alpine habitat, for up to seven months in the year.  They are regarded as the only true hibernating mammal in Australia. And they are the biggest of the lot – at 41 grams.

The  Eastern Pygmy Possum has a prehensile tail used for help when clambering about the flowers and branches. At this time of year, the base of the tail gets much thicker and is used as a fat storage area for the lean months.

ellie the baby eastern pygmy possum

Ellie the baby Eastern Pygmy Possum enjoys a mealworm, cared for by WIRES volunteers in NSW – Daily Telegraph

The Wombat Forestcare Caught on Camera project coordinators Ivan Carter and Gayle Osborne are delighted to have photographic records of the Eastern Pygmy Possum in the Wombat Forest. They are classified as Near Threatened, and are considered to be very sensitive to threats such as logging, cats and foxes, and planned burn operations. In five years of placing cameras in various parts of the forest, the pygmy possums have been spotted at just three sites. The possums have been found in Blackwood south, in a beautiful patch of forest which is shrubby foothill forest, and heathy dry forest with towering peppermints, mountain grey gums and candlebarks, and a diverse understory of banksias, hakeas and prickly tea-tree. Crucially, this area has not been burnt for at least a decade!!!

The pygmy possums have tiny home ranges, less than a hectare. One can imagine that a planned burn that covers hundreds of hectares has a devastating effect, as the removal of the shrub layer wipes out the food and shelter of any surviving pygmy possums.

I think it’s an absolute wonder there are any surviving locally at all! The Caught on Camera project is incredibly important – as some regard the Wombat Forest as not very good habitat compared to the Otways or the forests east of Melbourne. But Wombat Forestcare’s work has shown that there is a lot of life in our beloved forest – their cameras reveal populations of Mountain Brushtail possum or Bobuck, and of course the Threatened Brush-tailed Phascogale, previously unrecorded in the Wombat Forest south of Daylesford.

For exciting photos of all the Caught on Camera animals, “like” Wombat Forestcare on Facebook, or go to www.wombatforestcare.org.au

Messmates in flower!

The Messmates are in flower! This year’s flowering event is a rich fulsome flowering, each tree covered in masses of small white flowers, and the surrounding air alive with insects and honeyeaters.  This is wonderful to see after the sad, impotent flowering of drought years that produced dry brittle blossoms that soon died. This year’s blossoms began around Christmas, and will keep flowering for up to six weeks. That is a lot of pollen and nectar!

A Messmate is a type of Eucalyptus tree, colloquially known as a stringybark due to its fibrous stringy bark. Some people call them Messmate Stringybarks to distinguish them from other stringybarks such as Red Stringybark, another local tree. Messmates love high rainfall, fertile soils and seem to thrive in the cold. I find the Messmate, Manna Gum, Blackwood, and Silver Wattle combination of the Wombat Forest beautiful to behold.

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A couple of beloved Messmates at home at Porcupine Ridge

The Messmate was the first Eucalyptus to be described by Europeans, described by a botanist by the name of L’Heritier from specimens collected from Bruny Island  in 1777, during Captain James Cook’s third Pacific expedition. It was named Eucalyptus obliqua after the Latin obliquus, meaning oblique. This refers to the distinctive uneven join of the leaf margins to the leaf stalk. I used to think this was an identifying feature – but there are actually many Eucalypts with this leaf pattern.

So how does one identify the Messmate? If it is a rough barked tree, with rough bark all the way to the ends of the branches, find some of the fruit, or the gum nuts. If they are smooth and shaped like a wine glass, or wine barrel, it is a messmate. If the gum nuts have three pointed bits sticking up from inside the “barrel” it is likely to be a Red Stringybark, a stringybark gum which is common in Hepburn and drier areas of the shire.

Messmates have a wide distribution, occupying most of Tasmania, and the wetter cooler regions of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and westwards as far as Kangaroo Island. Their size and shape depends greatly on their habitat – from a twisted 2 metre high tree on an exposed coastal bluff, to a massive tree of almost 90 metres in a sheltered situation in Tasmania.

In the Daylesford region, you can see this variation in form in the Messmates. However I would add that it is not only habitat (soil and rainfall) but also management of the surrounding area that determines tree form. Out in Porcupine Ridge, our old Messmates have massive branches coming out from the main trunk just a few metres off the ground. This gives the trees an all over bushy shape, with ample branches exposed to sunlight for maximum blossom production, beautiful habitat within all the intersecting branches and plenty of opportunities for tree hollows.

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Messamte blossoms by Linley McGlashan – via natureshare.org

In Wheatsheaf or Trentham, the Messmates seem to be twice as tall, and they branch at 10 metres above the ground.  The canopy is smaller and tighter. I used to think this more vigorous growth habit was due to the more fertile soils and higher rainfall of these areas.

The Porcupine Ridge Messmates have been left as shade for stock such as sheep, and as such could be very old. The Messmates in the wetter areas of the shire live in a forest that has been logged and mined and logged and then logged again almost beyond recognition. The regrowth trees, of 50 – 120 years old that I am seeing in Wheatsheaf, while taller than the Porky Ridge trees, are much younger, and they are part of an even-aged stand of forest. They grow side by side, competing for the light, and crowding each other’s form.

What I wouldn’t give for a time machine to go back to see the Messmates of the Wombat Forest before the first one was cut down. I imagine huge towering trees, with massive branches each the size of a tree itself, side by side with Blackwoods with trunk diameters of several metres.  I imagine Greater Gliders and Koalas feasting on the leaves, and Sugar Gliders and Mountain Brushtails enjoying the masses of blossoms, all the while their apex predators Mr and Mrs Powerful Owl hoot in the distance. We still have this story happening in the Wombat Forest, but in much reduced glory – bless these plants and animals for holding on despite repeated onslaughts.

I would like to acknowledge the work of Wombat Forestcare, for they campaign tirelessly for the Messmates and their fauna. Please check out their website www.wombatforestcare.org.au

greater-glider

The Greater Glider – Wombat Forestcare’s mascot

Photo credit: fleayswildlife.com.au, Grant Fraser