The project to save the critically endangered mountain pygmy opossum from climate change took some small steps earlier this month as 14 of them were introduced to their new home near Lithgow.
There, in a newly built breeding facility at the Secret Creek Sanctuary, the mountain pygmy possums joined a few of their Burramysparvus species that previously lived in temporary enclosures while awaiting the construction of their new home.
The project, led by UNSW Sydney and in partnership with wildlife foundations and government conservation programs, received an unexpected boost when Prague Zoo offered to inject more than $190,000 into the construction of the livestock facility following the devastating bushfires that swept across eastern Australia in 2019-20. Some of these fires have damaged parts of the alpine habitat where these critically endangered little opossums are found.
Last month, representatives of the Prague Zoo, including its director, Miroslav Bobek, and the Ambassador of the Czech Republic to Australia, His Excellency Tomáš Dub, were on hand to officially launch the breeding facility at the Secret Sanctuary. Creek.
The new home for this endangered species consists of specially designed feeding and nesting areas in a large building with all the necessary resources to encourage the possums to enjoy life and hopefully be highly breeders.
Completing the facility this year is a key step in the plan to save this species from extinction – there are thought to be fewer than 3,000 left in the wild.
UNSW Dr Hayley Bates from the School of Biological, Environmental and Earth Sciences, one of Australia’s foremost animal experts, explains that the first step in the breeding project is to acclimate the possums to their new surroundings, including providing new foods.
“The alpine environment is changing, we have already seen a massive drop in the number of bogongs, an important food item for possums in the wild,” she says.
“We want to study how opossums will respond to modern changes to their environment, so that when climate change impacts occur, we can make better-informed, science-based management decisions to protect this species in the wild. Understanding how possums have dealt with climate change in the past is key to this story. “
The cool, temperate lowland rainforest environment near Lithgow is apparently miles away from the harsh conditions of the NSW and Victoria Alps, but according to the UNSW paleontologist Professor Mike Archerthe mountain pygmy opossum has lived on the edge of survival for thousands of years.
“For 25 million years, nearly identical ancestors to species living in the Alpine region today thrived in the cool and temperate rainforests of the lowlands. Among other places, we have found their fossils in the World Heritage area from Riversleigh in north-west Queensland in rocks dating from 25 to 10 million years ago, a time when this lowland area was covered in species-rich tropical rainforests,” says Professor Archer . .
“We believe that the mountain pygmy possums moved into the alpine zone during a warm and humid period during the Pleistocene, but when the climate changed, they got stranded there. They barely managed to survive using the rock piles and snow cover to insulate themselves from the winter cold. The piles of stones also protect them from the deadly summer heat.
“And now climate change threatens them again. As the winter snows diminish, the cold winter air will seep into the rock piles and kill them as they sleep. So we decided to use these clues to their past to reintroduce them to the cool lowland rainforest environments where their direct ancestors thrived.
The mountain pygmy opossum is one of the few Australian animals to hibernate, which scientists say was an adaptive behavior to the colder environment. Interestingly, in the warmer lowland environment, opossums no longer need to do this, any more than their ancestors did millions of years ago.
CEO of Secret Creek Sanctuary and secretary of the Australian Ecosystems Foundation, Trevor Evans, said that thanks to the support of groups like the Prague Zoo, the Australian Geographic Society, the Australian Wildlife Society, the Australian Ecosystems Foundation and the general public, the breeding facility will give the mountain pygmy-possum its first real chance at surviving climate change.
“We now have a facility that will allow these alpine opossums to adapt to an environment very different from the kind their ancestors enjoyed and thrived in for millions of years. The breeding facility will provide the bridge to help them get back into these much more comfortable environments and survive the deadly changes that are happening in the alpine zone,” he says.
“It’s just awesome to finally be able to see this dream – which took decades to come true – turn into reality.”