Mountain pygmy possums find new home in Lithgow amid climate change fears


Far from their mountainous homes, a rare colony of endangered pygmy possums is preparing for a warming climate.

Australia’s only hibernating mammal, the Mountain Pygmy Possum, is found only on some of the highest peaks of the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales and Victoria.

The tiny marsupials weigh less than 100 grams and can sleep under the snow for several months in their rocky burrows.

The elusive creatures have had an interesting history, first discovered in fossil form in the Wombeyan Caves north of Goulburn in the 19th century, the species was thought to be extinct until feral colonies were discovered on the Mount Hotham in 1966.

Mountain pygmy possums go into “torpor,” or hibernation for seven months of the year in their rocky burrows under the snow.(Provided: Karen Watson)

Dr Linda Broome of the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service said there are only a few thousand left in the wild, and even fewer during times of drought.

“In a good year, there are about 3,000 adults and during drought periods, which we’ve had in recent years, they drop to 2,000 or even less,” she said.

As alpine environments face the impacts of climate change, additional pressures have built up on the endangered marsupial.

A woman holding a pygmy opossum
UNSW’s Dr Hayley Bates says opossums are under threat because of climate change.(Provided: Tamara Dean)

Dr Hayley Bates of the University of New South Wales said reduced snow cover, bushfires and a reduction in a major food source – the Bogong Moth – were all impacting the ‘opossum.

“And especially with the bushfires, we lost a lot of food vegetation,” she said.

A possum enclosure
The Lithgow enclosure was designed to mimic the rocky opossum burrows in the Alps.(ABC News: Hugh Hogan)

A home away from home

The plight of the opossums led to a new custom-designed and built enclosure in Lithgow, funded by donations from Prague Zoo during the Black Summer bushfires.

The breeding facility is made of solid stone that goes underground with built-in nesting boxes and water drops to mimic melting snow.

The high elevation of the Secret Creek Sanctuary and its success in breeding captive-bred Victoria possums in the past made it the ideal location.

“Where we are here is about 1,000 meters [above sea level]which is probably the bottom end they could live in,” said owner Trevor Evans.

A small opossum in one hand
The new Lithgow facility will be used as a reserve population and to prepare the species for climate change.(Supplied: a horn)

Operation “super possum”

With wild colonies facing many threats, the captive-bred possums have moved into the new Lithgow facility to begin a breeding plan that hopes to keep the species going.

In addition to providing a backup population, scientists plan to bring wild populations into the enclosure and breed a “super opossum” more suited to warmer climates.

Linda Broome said that when the opossums have successfully adapted to the warmer temperatures in Lithgow, they will seek to create new wild populations of opossums, outside of the fragile alpine environment.

“Maybe we can introduce them to lower elevations, to those tropical rainforest environments where they first occurred,” Dr Broome said.

Hayley Bates said the bold strategy was needed because of the accelerating pace of change happening in the mountains.

“Projects like this are really important because we’re trying to sustain this species and make sure it doesn’t go extinct,” Dr Bates said.

“And if that works for the pygmy opossum, we can start looking at other species as well.”


Comments are closed.