Fairy possums at risk of extinction in Australia • Earth.com

Last update: October 14th, 2019 at 1:05 pm

Logging, bushfires, and a changing climate have put a shy Australian marsupial at risk, according to scientists. The fairy possum, the state of Victoria’s official animal, is critically endangered and rapidly headed for extinction, according to a new study.

Only about 2,000 of the little marsupials are still left in the forests of Victoria, which is the only place in Australia where they are found. Fairy possums live their whole lives in the forest, and sleep in hollowed-out trees.

A team of researchers from the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University set out to analyze some potential solutions.

Increasing the size of reserves to protect the small possums could help their population grow, but at a cost, the researchers said.

“We found acute trade-offs between conserving Leadbeater’s Possum habitat and conserving habitat of other forest-dependent species,” they wrote in their study.

Despite the similar name, the fairy possum is not closely related to America’s opossums. Both are marsupials, but fairy possums – also called Leadbeater’s possums – are in the order Diprotodontia.

That means they’re more closely related to other Australian possums, koalas, wombats, and even kangaroos than they are to opossums, which are in the order Didelphimorphia. However, the name “possum” does come from the Algonquin language.

Bush fires have been the largest problem faced by the Victorian marsupials. In old growth forests, large fires don’t kill many of the trees. Instead, they leave hollowed out places where the fairy possums like to nest, the biologists said.

In younger forests, however, the trees can’t withstand the flames. Instead of creating habitat, fires destroy it.

Without a major change, the fairy possum could be extinct in 20 years, the researchers said.

The best solution for all of the endangered species that call Victoria’s forests home would be to transition logging operations from natural forests to tree plantations, they said. Otherwise, some of the at-risk animals could be preserved, but not without sacrificing others.

The scientists published their research in the journal PLOS One.

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