Brush Tales: Studying the Mountain Brushtail Possum in the Central Highlands of Victoria

THWACK! A mountain ash sapling sprung back and hit my side, showering me in water droplets. I’d woken up at 5:30am to drive out and check cage traps in dense regrowth on a steep mountain slope. I was tired, I was drenched, and I was loving every minute of it.

photo 4 (3)

I was getting experience working in the field, assisting Laurence Berry with his research in the Central Highlands of Victoria. Laurence is a PhD student from ANU, interested in investigating the ecology of extensive ecosystem disturbances across landscapes. He was in Victoria studying the Mountain Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus cunninghami) in areas affected by the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009. Laurence was comparing the movement of the possum (a close relative of the Common Brushtail Possum most of us are familiar with) through unburnt, partially burnt and severely burnt forest. The study was replicated across multiple sites in the region, to control for any confounding local geographic variables. Practically, this meant a lot of driving, and a lot of trapping.

A Mountain Brushtail Possum posing for a portrait on its release

A Mountain Brushtail Possum posing for a portrait on its release

The trapping involved setting large cage traps along transects 100m or more in length, at times on rather challenging terrain – through dense vegetation, steep slopes, or a charming combination of both. I discovered rather quickly that I do not possess a strong natural aptitude for dragging cage traps through thick scrub.

If an animal was trapped, it was encouraged into a hessian sack and processed. The possums were sedated, and I was able to get some very “hands on” experience handling them.

Taking some measurements

Taking some measurements

Along with handling the possums, I had experience with radio tracking and learnt about the ecosystems we were working in, especially how they responded to fire and logging events. The Mountain Ash forests were spectacular. Mountain Ash is the world’s tallest flowering plant, and it forms the most carbon dense forests in the world with approximately 2000 tonnes of above ground carbon biomass per hectare. These forests are very biodiverse, home to many native species including Leadbeater’s Possum, the endangered faunal emblem of Victoria. Almost all of Melbourne’s water comes from ash forested catchments, which are praised for the exceptionally clean water they produce.

A “stag” - a large dead tree - providing key habitat on a ridge burnt in the Black Saturday fires

A “stag” – a large dead tree – providing key habitat on a ridge burnt in the Black Saturday fires

I was surprised to learn that despite these values, the ash forests of Victoria were under threat from what is argued to be unsustainable logging practices – mainly for wood pulp production. With all of the media attention surrounding the old growth forests of Tasmania, this issue completely flew under my radar. One of Laurence’s supervisors is Professor David Lindenmayer, a highly accomplished ANU ecologist who is arguing for an end to logging in these forests. If you would like to learn more about his arguments against logging, you can listen to the extended interview he gave on the ABC’s AM program.

I learnt a great deal over the course of three days in the Central Highlands. It is a beautiful, valuable part of our country that deserves protection. I feel very privileged to have been allowed to enter pristine forests with restricted public access – though perhaps not quite as privileged as the forest’s leeches who had breakfast courtesy of yours truly!

Jared Priestly u5208943

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About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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2 Responses to Brush Tales: Studying the Mountain Brushtail Possum in the Central Highlands of Victoria

  1. A great effort Jared to head all the way to the Central Highlands of Victoria to gather material for your blog. Isn’t it amazing how much growth has occurred since the Black Saturday fires in 2009. Phil

  2. Pingback: Volunteer blogs | My PhD Research

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