This article was written by James O’Hanlon for Australian Geographic on March 24th 2015
The South-West of Australia is a unique ‘biodiversity hotspot’, home to many plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. More plants are pollinated by vertebrates (animals that have a backbone) here than anywhere on Earth. In fact, 15 per cent of all flowering plants here need birds and mammals to transfer their pollen.
One of these important little mammals is the little-studied western pygmy possum. A new research project is looking into the secret lives of this tiny species, which are just under 8cm long, and its cousin, the honey possum.
“We live in an exceptional global biodiversity hotspot, and this research is exploring and testing ideas why this is so,” said Professor Stephen Hopper from the University of Western Australia, in a statement. “Ultimately, research of this kind may reveal how we can live sustainably with biodiversity, rather than in ways that cause the continuing loss of other species.”
Recently a western pygmy possum (Cercartetus concinnus) was found in Torndirrup National Park in Western Australia, only the second to have ever been found in this area. There are five species of pygmy possum in Australia and they belong to the Burramydae family: the western pygmy possum, eastern pygmy possum, Tasmanian pygmy possum, long-tailed pygmy possum and mountain pygmy possum.
Mountain pygmy possums are a critically endangered species. Once thought to be extinct, they can only be found in a small areas of the Snowy Mountains. Long-tailed pygmy possums are found in the rainforests of far north Queensland and parts of New Guinea. The remaining three species have larger distributions that stretch across of southern Australia.
Honey possums (Tarsipes rostratus) are in a separate group, the Tarsipedidae, and there is only a single species, which is endemic to southwest Australia. Unlike the pygmy possums that venture out at night to feed on nectar, pollen and small insects, honey possums are specialists that only feed on nectar. Their long snout and protruding tongue are ideal for probing flowers for nectar.
Understanding the interactions between these elusive animals and native plants is critical for making sure that important habitats are protected and conserved. Ongoing research will shed light on how unique organisms and ecosystems such as those found in southwest Australia maintaining Australia’s unique biodiversity.