Why This Possum Is Playing Possum With Climate Change

After 25 million years, Australia’s mountain pygmy possum could disappear if temperatures continue to rise.

They may be small, but with a little help from their friends, the mountain pygmy possum just might beat global warming. (Courtesy of Hayley Bates, University of New South Wales)

A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

A one-degree change in temperature doesn’t sound like much, but it could mark the difference between life and death for Australia’s mountain pygmy possum. For this little guy—about 5.5 inches in size, weighing only 0.4 to 1.8 ounces—climate change, not natural predators, is public enemy number one.

The possums, also known as Burramys parvus, hibernate in rock piles for six months of the year when snow covers the mountains above New South Wales and Victoria. Linda Broome is a senior researcher at the National Parks and Wildlife Service in New South Wales who has studied the possums for years. As a result of her research, she came to the realization that with a one-degree change in temperature, the snow field was going to disappear.

“The snow cover is extremely important to the Burramys because it provides them with insulation,” Michael Archer, a paleontologist and naturalist at the University of New South Wales who has worked with Broome, tells TakePart. “The temperatures in those alpine zones get well below zero, and if there’s not an insulating blanket of snow, the cold will penetrate the cracks in the boulder field where the Burramys live, and the possums won’t survive.”

As a solution, Archer, Broome, and others are working to establish a breeding colony in the lowland rainforests and reacclimate the possums—whose numbers have dwindled to between 2,000 and 2,600—to a climate similar to the one where their ancestors used to live. “It’s a most interesting, timely project and I think a global first in terms of using the fossil record to save a climate-change endangered mammal,” says Archer.

“Through our research, we’ve been monitoring the early fossil records going back 25 million years for virtually every group of vertebrates in Australia and this gives us slices in time all the way from 25 million years ago up to the present,” says Archer. “So we have an extraordinary resource to chart how things are changing through time in response to two-and-a-half cycles of climate change that have occurred over that period in Australia.”

As a result, Archer explains that researchers can predict what’s going to happen in Australia when climate change occurs because they’ve already seen in the fossil record what happens when similar changes have occurred in the past.

“The problem is that all the Burramys anyone knows about are confined to the alpine zone of Victoria and New South Wales above the snow line,” says Archer. “That seemed to be okay years ago. But then of course, climate change started to become an issue and this is something we’ve been aware of for about 15 years.”

Archer goes on to explain that, “As this concern was beginning to grow, we were simultaneously documenting what we understood about the history of this group over the last 25 million years. Many of the fossils were discovered in communities that were formed in lowland rainforest areas so completely different from the environment where we find the living Burramys. Given that this lineage had 25 million years of its comfort zone in these lowland rainforests it seemed probable that the living animal had followed the rainforest up the mountain and then climate change stranded it there.”

So 15 years ago, Archer suggested to a group of ecologists that they think about translocating the animal—an idea he says they thought was pretty absurd at the time. “But I pointed out that all the evidence we had from the fossil record indicated that where the Burramys is today is at one extreme end of the potential adaptive resilience of this lineage. Normally they’d be much more comfortable in a cool, temperate rainforest.”

While some people are skeptical that the possum could adapt and find a proper food source in the lowlands—their current diet of moths and mountain plums doesn’t exist there—Archer is more confident of their ability to adapt.

“It’s very typical of Australian animals,” he says, “they’re all opportunistic omnivores. If they can’t find the food they love, they’ll love whatever food they can eat. That has been the key to survival for many groups of animals in Australia and I have no doubt the Burramys will find more than enough food choices to entice them in the lowland rainforest. And in the breeding facility we’ll introduce them to the kinds of foods that were part of their ancestral heritage.”

Archer adds that he believes the resilience of our living animals is vastly underestimated by modern biologists. “Until these kind of projects are done, or until the fossil record is much better understood, we’re going to make assumptions about the requirements modern species have that are probably inappropriate,” he says.

“Many of these species, as the fossil records increasingly demonstrate, can live in areas other than the ones currently threatened by climate change,” says Archer. “Translocation is going to become an extremely important tool. The Burramys’ example in Australia will be leading the parade in this way. If we can demonstrate that this works, then I think we’ll be turning to other climate-change threatened environments and asking what else in those environments might help species survive elsewhere.”

Unfortunately, Archer says that while enough money has been raised to start the facility—which will also do research on what the possums will need when they’re released into their new lowlands environment—they don’t have the funds to complete it.

If you’d like to show climate change who’s the boss, you can help out by donating to the Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife.

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