Brush-tailed phascogale (Phascogale tapoatafa)

Synonyms: Phascogale tapoatafa tapoatafa
  
French: Grand Phascogale
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderDasyuromorphia
FamilyDasyuridae
GenusPhascogale (1)
SizeMale head-body length: 16 - 27 cm (2)
Female head-body length: 14 - 23 cm (2)
Male tail length: 17 - 24 cm (2)
Female tail length: 16 - 23 cm (2)
Male weight: 180 - 310 g (2)
Female weight: 110 - 210 g (2)

The brush-tailed phascogale is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The brush-tailed phascogale (Phascogale tapoatafa) is an attractive Australian marsupial, with deep grizzled grey fur on its head and body and pale cream fur on its underparts. It has a striking ‘bottle brush’ tail with long, silky, black hairs that can be erected (2) (3). The ears are large and hairless (4), and long, sharp, curved claws are present on each digit except for the innermost toe of the hind foot (3). Unlike many other marsupials, the female brush-tailed phascogale does not have a true pouch but instead has a pouch area, marked with light-tipped brown hairs that are coarser in texture than the rest of the fur. The female begins to develop protective folds of skin in this area about two months before giving birth (3).

Two subspecies of the brush-tailed phascogale are currently recognised: Phascogale tapoatafa pirata and Phascogale tapoatafa tapoatafa. However, it is now thought by some scientists that, due to significant genetic variation, the brush-tailed phascogale should actually be split into three separate species, with each species occupying a different region: northern Australia, eastern and south-eastern Australia, and south-western Australia (5).

The brush-tailed phascogale is endemic to Australia. The northern subspecies Phascogale tapoatafa piratais found in the northernmost part of Western Australia, along the north coast of the Northern Territory and at the northern tip of Queensland. The range of the other subspecies, Phascogale tapoatafa tapoatafa, stretches from Rockhampton in Queensland, south to the Mount Lofty Ranges in South Australia, with a further population occurring in southern Western Australia (4).

P. t. tapoatafa inhabits dry leafy forests and woodlands, where there is sparse ground cover and plenty of trees with hollows in which it can nest. P. t. pirata can be found in dry open forests near lakes and rivers, rocky woodlands, and deciduous vine thickets (2). While the brush-tailed phascogale prefers dry habitats, some individuals have been observed in swamps and rainforests (4).

The brush-tailed phascogale spends most of its time in trees, and rarely ventures down to the forest floor. Not surprisingly, it is an exceptional climber and capable of jumping up to two metres between trees (6).

Primarily active between dusk and dawn (6), the brush-tailed phascogale forages among the tree canopy, feeding on a variety of beetles, cockroaches, centipedes, spiders, ants and moths (2), which it extracts from crevices and under bark using its fingers. It also feeds on nectar from plants, and has even been known to catch and eat small birds and mammals (4) (6).

Female brush-tailed phascogales inhabit territories of approximately 20 to 60 hectares, which do not overlap with the territory of any other female. The larger territories of males can cover up to 100 hectares, and overlap with other male and female territories (6). Both sexes shelter and nest in tree hollows; these cavities are often lined with leaves, shredded bark and faeces, which serves to mark the phascogale’s territory (4).

The mating season of the brush-tailed phascogale lasts three weeks, between mid-May and July (2). Following mating, the gestation period lasts for 30 days, after which the female gives birth to a litter of three to eight young. After birth, the undeveloped young continue development in the ‘pouch’ of the female, which will have developed a fleshy rim that completely encloses the young. After seven weeks the young are moved to a nest and are weaned by three months old (2). The brush-tailed phascogale reaches adult size at around eight months old (3). While females may live up to three years of age, male brush-tailed phascogales have a much shorter lifespan, typically dying shortly after mating, before they are a year old (3).

Today, the brush-tailed phascogale occupies less than 50 percent of the range it did 30 years ago (2). This significant decline is thought to be largely the result of the clearance of suitable habitat (1). Habitat alteration, as a result of activities such as logging and mining, continues to threaten this marsupial today, causing a shortage of trees with hollows suitable for nesting.

The brush-tailed phascogale is also predated by introduced species, such as cats and foxes, and is at risk from diseases from feral cats and cane toads (2).

Numbers of the brush-tailed phascogale are decreasing but, thankfully, are not yet low enough for this species to be considered at risk of extinction (1). Efforts are being made to control non-native predators, such as cats and foxes, in Australia (7) (8); this will not only benefit the brush-tailed phascogale but also the numerous other Australian species threatened by introduced predators. Nest boxes have also been introduced in areas where trees with hollows have been removed (9) and a recovery plan is being prepared for this species (4), which should hopefully prevent it from declining further.

Learn more about conservation of the brush-tailed phascogale:

Authenticated (15/10/10) by Nicky Marlow, Senior Research Scientist, Department of Environment and Conservation (Western Australia).
http://www.calm.wa.gov.au/

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Department of Environment and Conservation (2006) Brush-tailed Phascogale. Department of Environment and Conservation, Government of Western Australia. Available at:
    http://www.dec.wa.gov.au/component/option,com_docman/task,doc_details/Itemid,/gid,124/
  3. Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  4. NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (1999) Threatened Species Information: Brush-tailed Phascogale. Threatened Species Unit, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. Available at:
    http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/nature/tsprofileBrushtailedPhascogale.pdf
  5. Spencer, P.B.S., Rhind, S.G. and Eldridge, M.D.B. (2001) Phylogeographic structure within Phascogale (Marsupialia: Dasyuridae) based on partial cytochrome b sequence. Australian Journal of Zoology, 49: 369-377.
  6. Soderquist, T. (1995) Brush-tailed phascogale, Phascogale tapoatafa. In: Strahan, R. (Ed.) The Mammals of Australia. Reed Books, Chatsworth.
  7. Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (2008) Threat Abatement Plan for Predation by Feral Cats. DEWHA, Canberra. Available at:
    http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/tap-approved.html
  8. Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (2008) Threat Abatement Plan for Predation by the European Red Fox. Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Canberra. Available at:
    http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/tap-approved.html
  9. Humphries, R. and Seebeck, J. (2003) Action Statement: Brush-tailed Phascogale. Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victoria, Australia.