Common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)

Also known as: silver-gray brushtail possum
  
French: Phalanger Blanchâtre
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderDiprotodontia
FamilyPhalangeridae
GenusTrichosurus (1)
SizeHead-body length: 32 - 58 cm (2)
Tail length: 24 - 40 cm (3)
Weight1.2 - 4.5 kg (3)
Top facts

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Brushtail possums are the most abundant, widely distributed and frequently encountered of all Australian marsupials (4) (5). As its name suggests, the common brushtail possum has a rather bushy tail, which is prehensile at the tip and has a naked patch on the underside, helping it to grip branches (2) (3) (4). The foreclaws are sharp and the hind foot bears an opposable, clawless first toe which gives a good grasp (3) (4). The second and third toes are fused, with a long, split claw, used in grooming (3).

The fur of the common brushtail possum is thick and woolly (2) (5), and quite variable in colour, ranging from silvery-grey, to brown, black, red or cream, lighter on the underparts, and with a brown to black tail (2) (3) (4) (6). The ears are large and pointed, and there are dark patches on the muzzle (3). A number of subspecies are recognised, based on variations in colour and body size, with individuals in Tasmania generally being the largest, with dense, often black coats, and particularly bushy tails (2) (3) (4). The male common brushtail possum is generally larger than the female, and the male’s coat usually blends to reddish across the shoulders. The female common brushtail possum has a well-developed, forward-opening pouch (2) (4) (6).

The common brushtail possum is widespread throughout Australia, and is also found on Tasmania and a number of other offshore islands, including Barrow Island and Kangaroo Island. The species has also been introduced to New Zealand, where it is now widespread (1) (2) (4).

This species occupies a wide range of habitats, including rainforest, woodland, dry eucalypt forest, pine plantations, semiarid areas and even urban gardens and parks (1) (2) (3) (4). Although generally found in forest habitats, it may also inhabit treeless areas (2) (5). The common brushtail possum shelters by day in a den, which may be located in a tree hollow, log, dense undergrowth, cave, animal burrow, or even in the roof-space of a house (2) (3) (5)

The common brushtail possum is largely nocturnal and arboreal, and is an agile climber (2) (3) (4), although it may also travel along the ground (3) (6). The diet varies depending on the location, but typically includes leaves, flowers, shoots, fruits and seeds, as well as insects, birds’ eggs and occasionally other small animals, such as young birds. The common brushtail possum is mainly solitary, maintaining spacing between individuals using a mixture of scent-marking, vocalisations and agonistic encounters. One of the most vocal groups of marsupials, brushtail possums communicate with a range of calls, including clicks, grunts, hisses, alarm chatters, guttural coughs, and screeching (2) (3) (4).

Breeding may occur at any time of year, particularly in northern Australia, but usually peaks in spring (September to November) and autumn (March to May) in other areas. In some areas, females may give birth in both seasons. The female common brushtail possum usually gives birth to a single young, after a gestation period of 16 to 18 days (2) (3) (4). Measuring just 1.5 centimetres at birth, and weighing a mere 2 grams (5), the tiny newborn climbs, unaided, through the female’s fur and into the pouch, where it attaches to one of two teats, remaining inside the pouch for a further four to five months. The young common brushtail possum is then left in the den or rides on the female’s back until around seven to nine months old (2) (3). Females begin to breed at around a year old, and males by the end of the second year (2) (3) (4), with young females usually establishing a home range adjacent to that of the adult female, while young males disperse further afield (3) (7). Lifespan may be up to 13 years in the wild (2) (3) (4).

In some areas the common brushtail possum is considered a pest species, causing damage to pine plantations and to regenerating eucalypt forest, as well as to flowers, fruit trees and buildings. It may also carry diseases such as bovine tuberculosis. The species has long been harvested for its valuable fur, although commercial hunting is now restricted to Tasmania (1) (2) (4). There are also removal permits in place on Kangaroo Island, where the common brushtail possum is considered a pest species and a threat to other vulnerable wildlife (1). The species was introduced to New Zealand in the mid-1800s for its fur, where it has thrived despite attempts to control its numbers, and is thought to have potentially damaging effects on native vegetation (2) (4).

Despite facing no major threats, the common brushtail possum has declined drastically in some areas, particularly in arid and semiarid areas of Australia (1) (4), and is now considered endangered in the Northern Territory (3) (8). The main causes of these declines are believed to be predation by dingoes, cats and foxes, as well as habitat fragmentation, the loss of suitable denning sites, and changed fire regimes in some areas (1) (6) (8) (9).

The common brushtail possum is not currently considered threatened as it still has a wide distribution, large population, is present in many protected areas, and is able to adapt well to human settlements (1) (2). Conservation measures recommended for the more vulnerable populations include fox control, provision of nest boxes, and population monitoring (1) (6) (8) (9). In Tasmania, a management programme is in place for the species, which aims to maintain viable populations of the common brushtail possum across its range, while managing the species as an ecologically sustainable resource, and trying to reduce economic losses and damage to natural ecosystems (10).

To find out more about conservation in Australia and Tasmania see:

 

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2009)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  3. Cronin, L. (2008) Cronin’s Key Guide Australian Mammals. Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
  4. Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. Burton, M. and Burton, R. (2002) International Wildlife Encyclopedia. Third Edition. Marshall Cavendish, New York.
  6. Department for Environment and Heritage, Southern Australia: Threatened Fauna Fact Sheet - Common Brushtail Possum, Trichosurus vulpecula (May, 2009)
    http://www.environment.sa.gov.au/biodiversity/bcp/pdfs/brushtail_possum_info_sheet.pdf
  7. Clout, M.N. and Efford, M.G. (1984) Sex differences in the dispersal and settlement of brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula). Journal of Animal Ecology, 53: 737 - 749.
  8. Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts, Northern Territory Government: Threatened Species of the Northern Territory - Common Brushtail Possum (Central Australian population) Trichosurus vulpecula vulpecula (May, 2009)
    http://www.nt.gov.au/nreta/wildlife/animals/threatened/pdf/mammals/common_brushtail_possum_en.pdf
  9. Maxwell, S., Burbidge, A.A. and Morris, K.D. (1996) The 1996 Action Plan for Australian Marsupials and Monotremes. Wildlife Australia, Canberra.
  10. Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, 1996. Management Program for the Brushtail Possum Trichosurus vulpecula (Kerr) in Tasmania - Review of Background Information (May, 2009)
    http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/trade-use/wild-harvest/possum/index.html