A rare species called the Scaly-tailed Possum has been caught for the first time in the Northern Territory, to the delight of Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) scientists working at the iconic Bullo River Station. The find has been heralded as a sign of the progress being made under a pioneering model of land management which combines pastoralism and conservation.
The Scaly-tailed Possum (sometimes called the Wyulda) is a unique rock-dwelling marsupial which prior to 2018 had only been recorded in the Kimberley. With stout limbs and a strong, gripping tail, it clambers among rugged rocky country, feeding on seeds, fruits and flowers by night and sheltering among the rocks during the day. A low-resolution photo from a camera trap in 2018 revealed that the species was present at Bullo River Station, but ecologists had not been able to lay hands on one… until now.
Ecologists from AWC carried out animal-trapping surveys in April and May, as part of ongoing efforts to monitor the health of ecosystems on Bullo River Station. Since 2018, the team has conducted comprehensive surveys of the wetlands, rocky ranges, and grassy savanna woodlands at the property, under a pioneering conservation partnership. This time around the ecologists were targeting rare mammals including bandicoots and the Wyulda; which are limited to north-western Australia or are of conservation concern.
“There hasn’t been a great deal of survey work done in this part of the world, compared to places like the Kimberley and the Top End,” according to AWC’s Senior Wildlife Ecologist Dr Eridani Mulder, who led the surveys.
“It’s an exciting place to work, because you never know what might turn up. When we first detected the possum on camera traps, that was a pretty big deal – it was the first record for the species outside of Western Australia and a range extension of about 150 kilometres.”
Catching a live Scaly-tailed Possum allowed the scientists to take a tissue sample for genetic analysis, which will provide more detailed information about the species at the very east of its range.
“We set around 15 – 30 traps along the base of the escarpment at dusk and came back before dawn to check them. From a total of 181 trap nights, we caught just one possum. We always take great care to limit the stress on the animal through trapping, so we took a small ear clipping for genetics, and then released it back in the same place. We caught the same animal the next night also – clearly he was a fan of peanut butter and apple!” said Dr Mulder.
Co-owner of Bullo River Station Julian Burt said “we are delighted with the discovery. This Scaly-tailed Possum is yet further evidence that this style of land management partnership is not only possible, but can and does deliver great ecological outcomes. The entire Station team is excited about what more can be achieved in partnership with AWC.”
Meanwhile, Bullo River’s bandicoots proved snap-happy, but trap-shy. Bandicoots showed up on camera traps at seven different sites but despite 565 trap nights targeting them in their preferred thick grassy habitat adjacent to creeks and wetlands, none was caught in this round of surveys.
Two species of bandicoots are found in north-western Australia: the widespread Northern Brown Bandicoot and the much rarer Golden Bandicoot – but distinguishing one from the other is extremely difficult, even for an expert. Working with partner groups in the Kimberley, AWC ecologists have used overall body proportions, hair analysis and even tooth impressions in previous attempts to confirm the animals’ identity. Genetic analysis remains the best way of making an identification with complete confidence, and to do that you need to catch a bandicoot first. Further attempts will be made in subsequent surveys.
Bullo River Station’s partnership with AWC sees the team carry out conservation work alongside a sustainable cattle farming operation, with the objective to maintain and improve the status of biodiversity across the 160,000-hectare property. The partnership involves managing fire through a program of prescribed burning, removing weeds and feral animals, and rigorous monitoring of wildlife through regular ecological surveys.
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