A rare marsupial found only in northern Australia, the lemuroid ringtail possum (Hemibelideus lemuroides) may become Australia’s victim of global climate change (1). Occupying the canopy of cool, humid forests, this species cannot survive temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius for more than four or five hours, making it extremely vulnerable to heatwaves (3), which are expected to increase in frequency as the climate changes. In fact, between 2005 and 2008 there was not a single sighting of the lemuroid ringtail possum, leading to fears that it had been wiped out by a heatwave in 2005. Fortunately, however, surveys in 2009 discovered a few individuals clinging to existence, allaying immediate concerns that the lemuroid ringtail possum had been lost forever (4).
The lemuroid ringtail possum typically has chocolate-brown fur, tinged with yellow on the underparts and with red on the head. The legs are dark brown, with black on the feet, and there are pale rings around the eyes (2) (5). The coat is soft and woolly, and is rather bushy on the tail, except for a naked patch on the underside near the tip. This aids the possum in climbing and allows it to grasp objects with its long prehensile tail (2) (6). The ears of the lemuroid ringtail possum project only slightly from the dense fur, and its muzzle is short (5).
The lemuroid ringtail possum also has small fold of skin along the sides of the body, which may be used as the possum jumps between branches, allowing it to glide very short distances. This unusual characteristic has led some scientists to postulate that the lemuroid ringtail possum bears features that are transitional between other ringtail possums and gliding possums (2).
A rare white form of the lemuroid ringtail possum, known as the white lemuroid ringtail possum, also resides in an isolate patch of forest. Individuals of this curious form are entirely creamy-white with an orange tinge (5).
- Also known as
- brush-tipped ring-tailed possum, brushy-tailed ringtail, lemur-like ringtail possum, white lemuroid possum.
- Head-body length: 31.3 - 52 cm (2)
- Tail length: 33.5 - 73 cm (2)
- 810 - 1,270 g (2)
Lemuroid ringtail possum biology
A strictly arboreal and nocturnal mammal (1), the lemuroid ringtail possum is extremely active at night, making jumps of two to three metres between branches in the canopy. As it jumps, the limbs are outstretched and the body stays flat, the long tail being used to steer. It often forages in small family units consisting of a male, a female and a single young, although feeding aggregations of up to eight are occasionally seen on a single tree (2). During the day, the lemuroid ringtail possum sleeps in tree hollows filled with foliage (6).
The lemuroid ringtail possum is a folivore, meaning that it mainly eats leaves. It prefers to feed on young leaves of the Queensland maple (Flindersia brayleyana) and the brown quandong (Elaeocarpus coorangooloo), but it may also feed on flower buds and the fleshy coverings of seeds (6).
Breeding occurs between August and November, with a single young born in early August. The infant remains in the female’s pouch for six or seven weeks, where it suckles on the female’s milk. After leaving the pouch, the infant rides on the female’s back for about six months, from November to April, and gains independence at around nine months old (6).
Lemuroid ringtail possum range
Occurring only in a small area of northern Queensland, the lemuroid ringtail possum is found in two distinct locations: one between Ingham and Cairns, at elevations above 450 metres, and another, smaller population, above 1,100 metres on the Mount Carbine Tableland, west of Mossman (1).
Lemuroid ringtail possum habitat
Inhabiting cool, wet primary rainforest, preferring the inner areas of forests rather than marginal habitats, the lemuroid ringtail possum is usually found in the upper canopy of tall trees (1) (5).
Lemuroid ringtail possum status
The lemuroid ringtail possum is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).
Lemuroid ringtail possum threats
The most significant threat to the lemuroid ringtail possum is global climate change. Prolonged exposure to temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius causes this species to loose control of its body temperature, leading to eventual death. The lemuroid ringtail possum is also particularly vulnerable to the adverse affects of climate change as it occupies cool forests at the high end of the altitude range in the region, meaning it has nowhere to go to escape the heat (1).
The range of the lemuroid ringtail possum has declined greatly over recent decades as a result of deforestation and selective logging (1). This species has been particularly sensitive to the fragmentation of its habitat as, being a strictly arboreal species, it does not cross roads or powerline corridors that dissect its habitat (7). It also does not use habitat corridors (8). The lemuroid ringtail possum population has declined by as much as 97 percent in places where its habitat has become fragmented (2).
Much of the range of the lemuroid ringtail possum is within the protected Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, meaning logging and habitat loss is no longer a threat. Conservation recommendations for this species include monitoring its distribution and abundance, and studying its habitat requirements and population dynamics (1).
The Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change at James Cook University is currently conducting monitoring and survey work to determine the distribution and abundance of the isolated white lemuroid ringtail population (5).
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- An animal which lives or spends a large amount of time in trees.
- A diverse group of mammals characterised by their reproduction, in which gestation is very short, and the female typically has a pouch (marsupium) in which the young are raised. When born, the tiny young crawls to the mother’s teats, where it attaches and stays for a variable amount of time, whilst it continues to develop. Marsupials also differ from placental mammals in their dentition.
- Active at night.
- Capable of grasping.
- Primary rainforest
- Rainforest that has remained undisturbed for a long time and has reached a mature condition.
IUCN Red List (April, 2011)
Nowak, R.M. (1999) Walker's Mammals of the World. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
Malkin, B. (2008) Australia's white possum could be first victim of climate change. The Telegraph. Available at:
IUCN: Wet Tropics looks into disappearing possums (April, 2011)
Queensland Government: Department of Environment and Resource Management - Lemuroid ringtail possum (April, 2011)
ClimateWatch - Lemuroid ringtail opossum (April, 2011)
Wilson, R.F., Marsh, H. and Winter, J. (2007) Importance of canopy connectivity for home range and movements of the rainforest arboreal ringtail possum (Hemibelideus lemuroides). Wildlife Research, 34: 177-184.
Laurance, W.F. (1991) Ecological correlates of extinction proneness in Australian tropical rainforest mammals. Conservation Biology, 5: 79-89.