The destructive critter we don’t understand: Evidence-based science needed to manage the Common Brushtail Possum

By U5810546 

When it comes to possums taking up residence in your home, I was of the belief that one must wait until a council worker passes by, and you can ask them to remove it. This is what my Mum does living in rural Australia, where you know every council worker by name. When I moved to the city, I learnt the hard way, that if you did not know the council worker, you cannot ask them into your home for a possum removal. Perhaps this inability to ask the council worker is why the ANU has wasted millions of dollars in an attempt to rid their buildings of this “pest”. Or this is what I thought, before I assisted in my first possum watch.  

The problem

The Common Brushtail Possum on ANU’s Acton campus. Photo by Divyang Rathod

The Common Brushtail Possum on ANU’s Acton campus. Photo by Divyang Rathod

The Common Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) is one of the most widespread marsupials in Australia. Despite being a native animal, the Brushtail is in constant conflict with the urban environment, due to the damage they cause to buildings in which they “unofficially” inhabit. Under the Nature Conservation Act 2014 the Brushtail has the right to exist in urban areas, despite the significant “conflicts with humans resulting from their nesting activity in buildings. Including noise and visual disturbances, structural damage, and large financial tolls to repair and prevent building damage” (Kenyon-Slade). For the ANU, this damage, and attempts to keep 
the Brushtail out of buildings, is causing significant financial strains. 

The ANU’s management (or lack thereof)

Despite estimates of up to AUD 2 million being spent on “possum proofing” 
an individual building on the ANU’s Acton campus, the institution still lacks the evidence-based science required to effectively manage the Brushtail. Caitlin Kenyon-Slade is an honours student at the ANU whose research will bridge this critical gap in science-based management.


A building where we are currently stag watching. Photo taken at 8:35. No possums had been seen. My own photo. 

Through assisting Kenyon-Slade with stag watching, I have experienced the practical requirements of this research. Over an hour, from sunset, we conduct counts of Brushtails entering and exiting buildings by trees“Stag watching enables us to collect data on the type of trees possums are using to acc ess buildings. Using the data, we can implement informed management decisions such as how far to trim trees back from buildings, and what trees are ideal candidates to install tree guards.” (Kenyon-Slade)

Future management

Kenyon-Slade’s research design indicates that the management of the conflict between the Brushtail and the urban environment is simple and cost effective when informed by adequate data. As Kenyon-Slade states; “This research will contribute valuable in a field where it is lacking and contribute cost-effective solutions to help solve the wider issue of man’s conflict with wildlife”. Despite 
the collection of this data being laborious, it is vital to ensuring that 
further funding is not wasted on science lacking management. 
With the number of staffing cuts ANU has forced over “a lack of funding” 
surely they do not have any more money to waste on their possum problem. 

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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