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Threatened pygmy possum colony thriving

The endangered Mountain Pygmy-possums are once again flourishing in the Snowy Mountains.

New survey results from the 30th year of research by a group of dedicated volunteers have shown the endangered Mountain Pygmy-possums are once again flourishing in the Snowy Mountains.

This year’s survey across five sites has revealed a total of 165 Mountain Pygmy-possums: 105 females and 60 males demonstrating stable, and in some areas, growing populations of the unique marsupials.

The work led by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) under the Saving Our Species (SoS) program, is believed to be one of the longest running fauna monitoring projects of its kind in the world.

OEH Senior Threatened Species Officer Dr Linda Broome, who has been studying and monitoring the Mountain Pygmy-possum for most of her 30 plus year career, said that this year’s survey team noted a late snow melt, which means female possums are only just starting to have their young.

“Even with a late snow melt the numbers are still encouraging, with 320 joeys recorded.

“Continuing the trapping of feral cats, a major threat to the possums, has also been successful. An increasing focus on this work since 2010 has helped numbers rise significantly.”

Dr Broome started the Mountain Pygmy-possum research back in 1986 and has dedicated her working life to protecting this endearing native animal.

“We have used the same survey methods and trap locations for 30 years to ensure robust, standardised data. The only change was when we swapped to tiny microchips instead of ear tags, which is much easier for us and the possums,” Dr Broome said.

During the annual survey up to 20 devoted volunteers spend weeks scouring the mountains setting traps loaded with walnuts, which the possums cannot resist. The team notes animals that have been microchipped, before carefully chipping and registering new animals, and recording measurements including sex, body weight, reproductive condition (including pouch young) and parasites.

Neil McElhinney is one of the longest serving volunteers working on the project. He’s attended 21 surveys over the past 30 years.

“It’s a privilege to support such a significant and long term project. It’s the enthusiasm of the volunteers that makes it a joy!” Mr McElhinney said.

Apart from the volunteers, Snowy Hydro and the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife have also supported the research. Last year the Threatened Species Commissioner contributed money to boost feral pest control, paying for a full time cat trapper and detection dog, now covered by the SoS program.

Also known as Burramys parvus, the average Mountain Pygmy-possum is between 8-12cm long, weighing about 40 grams. It survives winter by fattening up in late summer, then hibernating for up to seven months until the snow melts in spring.

On average, Mountain Pygmy-possums live around two to three years but females can live up to thirteen years and males up to five. Despite fitting into the palm of a hand, male Mountain Pygmy-possums can cover up to three kilometres a night when looking for food and mates.

The Mountain Pygmy-possum is the only Australian mammal exclusively found in the alpine zone above the winter snowline; it depends on insulation from the snow for its survival. It lives on the ground in rocky areas where boulders have accumulated below mountain peaks.

Ongoing work to protect the precious Mountain Pygmy-possum into the future is funded through the SoS program which has allocated close to $90,000 during 2016-17. The NSW Government aims to help almost a thousand animals and plants threatened with extinction under its flagship five year $100 million SoS program.