Who’s that up in the tree?

Who’s that up in the tree?

(Photo courtesy Greg Harewood)

The brush-tailed phascogale (Phascogale tapoatafa), formerly widespread and endemic to Australia, is now confined to small, fragmented areas. The taxonomy remains unresolved but four populations of distinct animals, occupying small, divergent geographic regions are currently recognised: p.t. kimberleyensis in the Kimberley, p.t. topoatafa in eastern and south-eastern Australia, p.t pirata in the Northern Territory, and p.t. wambengar here in southwestern Australia. Although estimates of remaining animal populations are not really known, due to multiple difficulties in performing accurate surveys, the brush-tailed phascogale is designated overall as near-threatened.

The tail of the phascogale looks like a bottle brush with long silky black hairs. It’s body is grizzled grey with a cream underside. Each digit, except for the innermost hind toe, ends in a long curved claw. The ears are large and hairless. Rather than a true pouch, the female has a pouch area that forms into protective skin folds two months before giving birth. The male phascogale dies after breeding though the female can mate two or three seasons.

Photo courtesy Greg Harewood

Brush-tailed phascogales are arboreal; they live in dense woodlands, nest in tree hollows, and rarely come down to the forest floor. Excellent tree climbers, they are capable of leaping 2 meters between branches. Their diet consists primarily of invertebrates found in and under the bark of trees, with nectar providing the occasional treat.

Female brush-tails inhabit territories of 20-60 hectares which do not overlap with any other females. The male brush-tailed phascogale home range is as much as 100 hectares. Deforestation removing large areas of suitable habitat likely accounts for much of the decline of the species, though the impact of cane toads and predators (cats and foxes), is not well studied or fully known.

Photo courtesy Mid-Coast Council

Why all this interest in brush-tailed phascogales? While out digging bucket holes for our upcoming fauna survey, one of the long-time property owners here on Nullaki described seeing squirrel-like animals running up his trees, to our ecologist Sandra Gilfillan. Imagine our excitement when she wondered aloud if what he had observed was in fact brush-tailed phascogales!

Soon after, Sandra was chatting with Basil Schur from Greenskills Denmark about a project he is involved in with that plans to install fifteen nesting boxes, with help from Southcoast NRM’s Noongar Green Army, in the Balijup Fauna Sanctuary near Tenterden. If, as is likely, they don’t find phascogales already occurring in the sanctuary, there are further plans to apply for approval to reintroduce the species to the protected area. A translocated group of animals has been successful in a Kojonup Reserve, after being provided with nest boxes for safe breeding by Bush Heritage Australia.

Photo courtesy Greg Harewood

While we are nowhere near being able to translocate animals, wouldn’t it be thrilling if there were brush-tailed phascogales already living on the Nullaki?  The good news is that when Basil heard of the possible sighting here, he offered to lend us three nesting boxes, constructed by the Men’s Shed in Denmark and Balijup property owner Alan Hordacre, that we’ll be putting up soon on the long-time land owner’s property. We’ll keep you posted about what we find!

Joann Gren