Seek and You Might Find ...

When I bent down to pick up a closed trap on a clear early morning in November 2010, I had no idea what was about to happen.

No, not heavy enough to be snake, I thought. Probably just another bush rat.

The bush rat (Rattus fuscipes) is, after all, one of the most common small mammals in these environs. I gingerly opened the door a crack and peered in.

What? I did an immediate double-take. This was no bush rat.

Staring back at me was the cutest tiny possum you can imagine – the mountain pygmy-possum (Burramys parvus). But how could this be? I was not on a boulderfield – known habitat for this diminutive species. There were no mountain plum-pines (Podocarpus lawrencei), and not too many Bogong moths (Agrotis infusa) about either – both critical components of this animal’s ecosystem. I was also at a much lower altitude than where this species is supposed to live.

As far as anyone was aware, mountain pygmy-possums didn’t live anywhere within a 30 km radius, which is a very long walk in Australia’s mountainous high country.

My brain whirred. No one is going to believe this! Best get a photo. But my fingers were trembling too much, and there was no way I was letting this little pygmy-possum go? I snapped some quick, inartistic shots of the possum at the bottom of the trap before figuring I had better take it someplace where I could get enough phone reception to call Gabriel, the environmental officer on the mountain pygmy-possum rehabilitation team. She would be able to confirm the possum’s identity.

So began a good news story of a critically endangered mammal clinging on in the highest climes of the continent.

A surprise in a snow hut

The mountain pygmy-possum was scientifically described from a Pleistocene fossil found in Wombeyan Caves, NSW, in 1895. Further fossils were discovered in Buchan Caves, eastern Victoria, and Jenolan Caves, NSW. No living specimens having been located, it was considered Extinct for over 70 years –another small mammal that had fallen by the wayside.

But in August 1966, some annoying creatures in the University Ski Club hut at Mt Higginbotham, Victoria, changed all that.

These critters weren’t rats or pesky antechinuses; they were live mountain pygmy-possums!

Right there, in a ski hut used by biologists and other academics in the midst of a prime ski area, was an ‘extinct’ species now made extant. The first live capture was soon made: in a trap that Joan Dixon, then curator of mammals at the National Museum of Victoria, had forgotten to bait.

In any case, normal bait (peanut butter, rolled oats and honey) doesn’t work for this contrary pygmy-possum, which prefers walnuts.

The first NSW individual was trapped four years later, in early 1970, in southern Kosciuszko NP. Subsequent trapping revealed this marsupial was patchily distributed across the Victorian and NSW Alps, at altitudes above 1400 m on Mt Bogong, the Bogong High Plains and Mt Higginbotham, and in a small section of southern Kosciuszko NP at above 1600 m between South Ramshead in the Thredbo area, north to Gungartan Pass.

Just 21 years ago, a new population was discovered on Mt Buller, another popular skiing area.

Could it occur elsewhere?

More surprises were to follow ...


Article: extract from Wildlife Australia, written by Martin Schulz.

Wildiaries • August 2017