Eastern Pygmy Possum Release at North Head
Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) has reintroduced the Eastern Pygmy Possum to the heart of Australia’s biggest city, with the release of six of the tiny marsupials at North Head Sanctuary in Sydney this month. The possums, which are a threatened species in NSW, have been extinct at North Head for decades. Their reintroduction is part of AWC’s mission to reverse the tide of extinctions ravaging Australia’s mammals.
December 2016: The release of Eastern Pygmy Possums at the sanctuary is the latest step in a decade-long effort to restore a healthy ecosystem to North Head, which sits at the mouth of Sydney Harbour. Since 2009, AWC has worked in partnership with the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust to deliver projects aimed to restore and protect the largest remaining patch of Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub (an endangered vegetation community). The possum release follows the successful reintroduction by AWC of native Bush Rats, which have established a stable population on the headland over the past two years. Both species are ecologically important, acting as pollinators for plants like banksias and Lambertia which produce flowers with energy-rich nectar.
According to the Harbour Trust’s Acting Executive Director Dr Susan Culverston, “AWC’s projects are integral to the development of North Head as a natural Sanctuary. Their work helps us to sustain an appropriate balance between preserving the natural environment and encouraging people to visit this beautiful and spectacular site. The reintroduction of locally-extinct species such as the Eastern Pygmy Possum is an important element in the ongoing ecological restoration of North Head Sanctuary,” Dr Culverston said.
Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub is an endangered vegetation community which covers less than 3% of its original extent. Photo: J Clarke/AWC
The Pygmy Possums involved in the translocation were sourced from wild populations in Strickland and MacPherson State Forests on the NSW central coast. Ecologists from the NSW Forestry Corporation have monitored the wild populations intensively, and were able to provide detailed information about their feeding behaviour, home range size, and habitat requirements.
A NSW Forestry spokesperson said “Based on this research, we know that the population in McPherson State Forest is healthy and diverse enough to support the removal of a small number of pygmy possums to re-establish the species at North Head. The population in McPherson State Forest will continue to be monitored following the relocation of a small number of individual pygmy possums.”
Pygmy Possums have a large home range for such small animals, with each individual using ten to 10 den sites. Forestry Corporation custom-made around fifty Pygmy Possum nest boxes that have been installed throughout McPherson State Forest.
NSW Forestry ecologist Alf Britton and AWC ecologist Jennifer Anson inspecting a Pygmy Possum nest box. Photo: J Clarke/AWC
AWC ecologist Jennifer Anson has spent months preparing for the reintroduction, installing possum nest boxes across North Head to make the new residents feel right at home. Translocations are continuing into 2017, with the initial aim of releasing thirty animals as a founder population.
The Eastern Pygmy Possum is found across a wide area from south-east Queensland along the Great Dividing Range to Victoria, with separate populations in the Pilliga and in Tasmania. It has suffered from extensive habitat loss throughout its range, compounded by the impacts of feral foxes and cats. Poor fire regimes are also detrimental, affecting the availability of flowering plants on which the species feeds. Overall declines and local extinctions mean that today, the Eastern Pygmy Possum occurs in isolated populations with limited dispersal; part of the reason for its formal listing as a vulnerable species in NSW.
It is estimated that up to 10 native mammal species are locally extinct at North Head, consistent with the situation across much of Australia: small mammals are missing from the landscape. AWC’s program of practical, science-based land management aims to bring those mammals back, and the return of this remarkable species to the heart of Sydney Harbour is a significant step to that end.