Trichosurus vulpecula has the widest distribution of any Australian mammal. It can be found throughout most of Australia and Tasmania. It also thrives in New Zealand, where it was introduced in 1840.
Biogeographic Regions: australian (Native )
Body Length: 320-580 mm
Tail Length: 240-350 mm
Trichosurus vulpecula has large eyes and tall rounded ears. Its fur is short but dense, and its tail is typically long and is covered in long bushy fur. In some subspecies, the fur on the tail is the same length as on the rest of the body.
Throughout its range, there is considerable variation in the coat color of Trichosurus vulpecula. Color seems to vary according to habitat, and several subspecies have been identified.
Three of the subspecies are typically grey in color: T.v. vulpecula is found throughout southern Australia; T.v. arnhemensis is found in the northern tropical regions of Australia; and T.v. eburacensis is found in Cape York. T.v. johnsoni is found in eastern Queensland, and is typically red in color. The subspecies T.v. fuliginosus, which is found in Tasmania, has black coat coloration.
In all subspecies, the underside is lighter in color. A scent gland located on the chest is used to mark territories. The reddish secretions from this gland give the fur around it a brown or reddish appearance. Like most marsupials, the females have a small, forward opening pouch that is used in reproduction.
Range mass: 1200 to 4500 g.
Average basal metabolic rate: 3.8 W.
Habitat and Ecology
This species is commercially harvested in Tasmania. On Kangaroo Island, it is treated as a pest species (to humans and other threatened species) and there are removal permits. It is major a pest species in pine plantations in Australia where it can do considerable damage, and acts as a host of bovine tuberculosis in New Zealand (Kerle and How 2008).
Trichosurus vulpecula usually resides in forested or woodland areas. These habitats vary greatly throughout its range. In Tasmania, Trichosurus vulpecula can be found throughout the rainforests and dry woodlands that cover over 60% of the area. In the Australian northwest, it prefers eucalyptus forests and mangroves. In southern Australia, they also reside in wooded areas, but are sometimes found living a semi-terrestrial life where they den in rock crevasses and termite mounds (Smith et al,(49)1984). In New Zealand, Trichosurus vulpecula can be found in most forested areas.
Terrestrial Biomes: forest
Trichosurus vulpecula typically eats leaves, shoots, and flowers. Researchers have noted its great ability to adapt to a number of dietary resources including a large number of highly toxic flowers and leaves. Throughout most of its range, it prefers to feed on Eucalyptus flowers, but will eat from a number of various trees and shrubs. In addition, it eats clovers, grasses, garden fruits and turnips.
Vertebrate Associates on Kangaroo Island, Australia
The Common Brush-tailed Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) is a widespread folivore native to Australia, and specifically found on Kangaroo Island, among other locales in Australia. Perhaps the most notable mammal associate on the island is the Kangaroo Island endemic Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus fuliginosus), the icon for whom the island was named upon European discovery in 1802. A smaller marsupial present on the island is the Tammar Wallaby (Macropus eugenii). An endemic dasyurid is the Critically Endangered Kangaroo Island Dunnart (Sminthopsis aitkeni), which is found only in the west of the island in Eucalyptus remota/E. cosmophylla open low mallee, E. baxteri low woodland or E. baxteri/E. remota low open woodland.
Monotremes are also represented on the island. There is also an introduced population of the Duck-billed Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) in the western part of the island in Flinders Chase National Park. The Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) is also found moderately widespread on Kangaroo Island.
Chiroptera species on Kangaroo Island include the Yellow-bellied Pouched Bat (Saccolaimus flaviventris), which species is rather widespread in Australia and also occurs in Papua New Guinea. Australia's largest molossid, the White-striped Free-tail Bat (Tadarida australis) is found on Kangaroo Island. Another bat found on the island is the Southern Forest Bat (Eptesicus regulus), a species endemic to southern Australia (including Tasmania).
Several anuran species are found on Kangaroo island: Brown Tree Frog (Litoria ewingii), Spotted Marsh Frog (Limnodynastes tasmaniensis), Painted Spadefoot Frog (Neobatrachus pictus), Brown Toadlet (Pseudophryne bibroni) and Brown Froglet (Crinia signifera).
The Heath Monitor (Varanus rosenbergi ) is a lizard that grows up to a metre in length, preying on smaller reptiles, juvenile birds and eggs; it is frequently observed on warmer days basking in the sunlight or scavenging on roadkill. The Black Tiger Snake (Notechis ater) is found on Kangaroo Island. Another reptile particularly associated with this locale is the Kangaroo Island Copperhead (Austrelaps labialis).
The Glossy Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus lathami) is found on the island, especially in the western part, where its preferred food, fruit of the Drooping Sheoak, is abundant. The Kangaroo Island Emu (Dromaius baudinianus) became extinct during the 1820s from over-hunting and habitat destruction due to burning.
Marine mammals that are observed on the island include the Australian Sea Lion (Neophoca cinerea) and New Zealand Fur Seal (Arctocephalus forsteri), each species of which is native to Kangaroo Island, and abundant at Admiral's Arch as well as at Seal Bay.
Kangaroo Island is not so adversely impacted by alien species grazers as parts of the mainland. No rabbit species are present on the island, and introduced (but escaped) Domestic Goats (Capra hircus) and pigs (Sus scrofa) have generated only minor issues. However, a Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) population introduced to the island in the 1920s has caused significant damage to certain woodland communities, especially to Manna Gum trees.
- C.Michael Hogan. 2013. Kangaroo Island. Encyclopedia of Earth, National Council for Science and the Environment, Washington DC ed. M.McGinley
Life History and Behavior
Status: wild: 13.0 years.
Status: wild: 13.0 years.
Status: captivity: 14.7 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
There are typically two breeding seasons for Trichosurus vulpecula throughout the year. It is rare for a female to give birth twice in one year however. The highest number of births occur in the fall, with fewer occurring in the spring. Some populations of the subspecies T.v. arnhemensis are known to breed continuously throughout the year.
The females' estrous cycle lasts for about 25 days. The gestation period is around 18 days, and a single young emerges from the pouch in about 4 months. The young are typically weaned by about 6 months, and disperse anytime between 8 and 18 months. Females can reproduce by about 12 months of age, and males typically reach sexual maturity by age 2. They have an average life span of 7 years in the wild. (One Trichosurus vulpecula survived in captivity for over 14 years.)
The mortality rate for Trichosurus vulpecula is 75% in individuals around 1 year of age. That number drops considerably as the young mature and, in adult Trichosurus vulpecula, the mortality rate is only around 20%.
Average birth mass: 0.279 g.
Average gestation period: 17 days.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
Sex: male: 730 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
Sex: female: 315 days.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Trichosurus vulpecula
There is 1 barcode sequence available from BOLD and GenBank. Below is the sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species. See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen. Other sequences that do not yet meet barcode criteria may also be available.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Trichosurus vulpecula
Public Records: 2
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
Although once hunted extensively for their fur in Australia, Trichosurus vulpecula is now protected. In Tasmania, this species is partially protected, but there is an annual hunting season. In addition, landowners in Tasmania can obtain Crop Protection Permits in order to help control the damage done by these agricultural pests. Trichosurus vulpecula has thrived extensively in New Zealand, where it was introduced. There are no restrictions on hunting this species in New Zealand, and even with the thousands of animals that are killed each year, the population does not seem to be declining.
CITES: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
It is generally sparse and declining in monsoonal northern Australia. In South Australia it is only common on the offshore islands and in metropolitan areas. Populations on the western plains of New South Wales are restricted to riverine habitat. In the iron bark forest of the Brigalow belt bioregion of New South Wales, there has been 90% decline in the last 15 years.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Economic Importance for Humans: Negative
Throughout its range, Trichosurus vulpecula is a major agricultural pest. It has caused severe damage to eucalyptus and pine forests, as well as destroying peoples' gardens. In addition, Trichosurus vulpecula is a known carrier of bovine tuberculosis which is highly contagious.
Common brushtail possum
The common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula, from the Greek for "furry tailed" and the Latin for "little fox", previously in the genus Phalangista) is a nocturnal, semi-arboreal marsupial of the family Phalangeridae, it is native to Australia, and the second largest of the possums.
Like most possums, the common brushtail possum is nocturnal. It is mainly a folivore, but has been known to eat small mammals such as rats. In most Australian habitats, leaves of eucalyptus are a significant part of the diet but rarely the sole item eaten. The tail is prehensile and naked on its lower underside. There are four colour variations: silver-grey, brown, black and gold.
It is the Australian marsupial most often seen by city-dwellers, as it is one of few that thrive in cities, as well as a wide range of natural and human-modified environments. Around human habitations, Common Brushtails are inventive and determined foragers with a liking for fruit trees, vegetable gardens, and kitchen raids.
In New Zealand, where it was introduced in the 19th century, it is a major agricultural and conservation pest.
The common brushtail possum has large and pointed ears. It has a bushy tail (hence its name) that is adapted to grasping branches, prehensile at the end with a hairless ventral patch. Its forefeet have sharp claws and the first toe of each hind foot is clawless but has a strong grasp. The possum grooms itself with the third and fourth toes which are fused together. The common brushtail possum has a thick and woolly pelage that ranges in colour depending on the subspecies. Colour patterns tend to be silver-gray, brown, black, red or cream. The ventral areas are typically lighter and the tail is usually brown or black. The muzzle is marked with dark patches. The common brushtail possum has a head and body length of 32–58 cm with a tail length of 24–40 cm. It weighs 1.2-4.5 kg. Males are generally larger than females. In addition, the coat of the male tends to be reddish at the shoulders. As with most marsupials, the female brushtail possum has a forward-opening, well-developed pouch. The common brushtail possum’s chest has a scent gland that emits a reddish secretion which stains that fur around it. It marks its territory with these secretions.
Biology and ecology
Range and habitat
The common brushtail possum is perhaps most widespread marsupial of Australia. It is found throughout the eastern and northern parts of the continent, as well as some western regions, Tasmania and a number of offshore islands, such as Kangaroo Island and Barrow Island. It is also widespread in New Zealand since its introduction in 1840. The common brushtail possum can be found in a variety of habitats, such as forests, semiarid areas and even cultivated or urban areas. It is mostly a forest inhabiting species, however it is also found in treeless areas. In New Zealand, possums favour broadleaf-podocarp near farmland pastures. In southern beech forests and pine plantations, possums are less common. Overall, brushtail possums are more densely populated in New Zealand than in their native Australia. This may be because Australia has more fragmented eucalypt forests and more predators. In Australia, brushtail possums are threatened by humans, tiger quolls, dogs, foxes, cats, goannas, carpet snakes and certain owls. In New Zealand, brushtail possums are threatened only by humans and cats.
Food and foraging
The common brushtail possum can adapt to numerous kinds of vegetation. It prefers Eucalyptus leaves but will also eat flowers, shoots, fruits and seeds. It may also consume animal matter such as insects, birds’ eggs and small vertebrates. Brushtail possums may eat three or four different plant species during a foraging trips, unlike some other arboreal marsupials, such as the koala and the greater glider, which focus on single species. The brushtail possum's rounded molars cannot cut Eucalyptus leaves as finely as more specialised feeders. They are more adapted to crushing their food which enables them to chew fruit or herbs more effectively. The brushtail possums’ caecum lacks internal ridges and cannot separate coarse and fine particles as efficiently as some other arboreal marsupials. The brushtail possum cannot rely on Eucalyptus alone to provide sufficient nitrogen. Its more generalised and mixed diet, however, does provide adequate nitrogen.
The common brushtail possum is largely arboreal and nocturnal. It has a mostly solitary lifestyle, and individuals keep their distance with scent markings (urinating) and vocalisations. Brushtail possums usually make their dens in natural places like tree hollows and caves but will also use spaces in the roofs of houses. While they sometimes share dens, brushtails normally sleep in separate dens. Individuals from New Zealand use many more den sites than those from Australia. Brushtail possum compete with each other and other animals for den spaces and this contributes to their mortality. This is likely another reason why brushtail possum population densities are smaller in Australia than in New Zealand. Brushtail possums are usually not aggressive towards each other and usually just stare with erect ears. Brushtail possums vocalise with clicks, grunts, hisses, alarm chatters, guttural coughs and screeching.
Reproduction and life history
The common brushtail possum can breed at any time of the year, but breeding tends to peak in spring, from September to November, and in autumn, from March to May, in some areas. Mating is promiscuous and random; some males can sire several young in a season while over half sire none. In one Queensland population, it apparently takes the males one month of consorting with females before they can mate with them. Females have a gestation period of 16–18 days, after which they give birth to single young. A newborn brushtail possum is only 1.5 cm long and weighs only 2 g. As usual for marsupials, the newborn brushtail possum may climb, unaided, through the female’s fur and into the pouch and attach to a teat. The young develops and remains inside the mother’s pouch for another four or five months. When older, the young is left in the den or rides on its mother’s back until it is seven to nine months old. Females reach sexual maturity when they are one year old, and males do so at the end of their second year. Female young have a higher survival rate than their male counterparts due to establishing their home ranges closer to their mothers, while males travel farther in search of new nesting sites, encountering pre-established territories from which they may be forcibly ejected. In the Orongorongo population, female young have been found to continue to associate with their mothers after weaning, and some will inherit the prime den sites. There is possible competition between mothers and daughters for dens, and daughters may be excluded from a den occupied by the mother. In forests with shortages of den sites, females apparently produce more sons, which do not compete directly for den sites, while in forests with plentiful den sites, female young are greater in number. Brushtail possums can live up to 13 years in the wild.
Relationship with humans
The common brushtail possum is considered a pest in some areas as it is known to cause damage to pine plantations, regenerating forest, flowers, fruit trees and buildings.
Its fur has been considered valuable and has been harvested. Although once hunted extensively for its fur in Australia, the common brushtail possum is now protected in mainland states, but only partially protected in Tasmania where there is an annual hunting season. In addition, Tasmania gives Crop Protection Permits to landowners whose property has been damaged.
While its populations are declining in some regional areas due to habitat loss, urban populations indicate an adaptation to the presence of humans. In the mainland states, possum trapping is legal when attempting to evict possums from human residences (e.g. roofs), however possums must be released after dusk within 24 hours of capture, no more than 50 metres from the trapping site. In some states e.g. Victoria, trapped possums may be taken to registered veterinarians for euthanasia. In South Australia, they are fully protected and permits are required for trapping possums in human residences or for keeping or rescuing sick or injured wild possums and other native animals.
In New Zealand, where they are an introduced feral species, there are no restrictions on hunting but the population seems to be stable despite the annual killing of the animals in the thousands. In addition, in New Zealand (but not Australia where the disease has been eradicated) it is a host for the highly contagious bovine tuberculosis. The New Zealand Department of Conservation controls possum numbers in many areas via the aerial dropping of highly toxic 1080 (sodium monofluoroacetate) laced bait.
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