There are 13 species of possum in Australia, this page deals exclusively with the common brushtail.
The English language name possum was given to the species because of a similarity to the North American Opossum, to which it is, in fact, distantly related. The scientific name, Trichosurus vulpecula means furry-tailed little fox. However, whilst it does indeed have a furry tail, it is not related to the fox and the tail is both lacking fur on the underside and is prehensile.
There are four sub-species of Common Brushtail, separated geographically and varying in size and colour.
Common and widespread throughout the east, south-east, south west as well as northern WA and NT. Also on Tasmania and has been introduced to New Zealand. It is possibly the most successful remaining marsupial and is commonly seen around dwellings and parkland in towns and cities. However, it now occupies only 37% of its former range and is absent from large parts of central and western Australia. In their natural environment they den in hollow logs and tree trunks, in towns etc they will readily use roof spaces (see below).
Weight and colouring follows the Bergmann rule (greater mass and darker pelage when inhabiting colder, ie more southerly, regions). Hence the Tasmanian animals are up to 4Kg in weight whereas those of the Top End may only reach 1.5Kg. Length is 350-500mm (head and body) making the brushtail possum similar in size to a domesticated cat. Life span is 6-7 years.
All sub-species have pink noses, large ears, a pointed face, black or dark fur around the eyes and side of muzzle and a black or blackish tail. The body pelage varies from dark grey through to rufous. They are mainly tree living and have sharp claws, hand-like back feet for grasping and a prehensile tail for curling around blanches. Communication is by sound and scent, the ‘nightmare-like’ screeching being most common in the breeding season.
Brushtails are folivores but not exclusively. In the wild they will supplement their diet of eucalyptus leaves with bark, grasses, buds, fruits, nectar and even small animals. Around humans they will readily take a wide variety of scraps of food from the dinner table.
Females reach maturity after about 12 months (males 18 months) and will produce young annually for the remainder of her life. Breeding generally takes place between autumn and spring but in the north it can take place all year round. The male will have several partners. The single offspring is born after 17 days and will then migrate to the pouch where it will suckle for 4-5 months. After this time the young will emerge and travel on its mother’s back for another month or two before separating from its parent. The composition of the milk from the lactating mother is changes as the offspring develops.
The range of the brushtail has declined significantly since European settlement. However, numbers remain strong (including an estimated 60 millions in New Zealand) and the species is not seen as threatened. Indeed, many urbanites view the animal as a pest. It is illegal to trap a possum without a permit and then it must not be relocated (National Parks and Wildlife Act, 1970). Most relocated possums will quickly die as a result of being unfamiliar with their surroundings and consequently vulnerable to predation. The recommended method for dealing with problem brushtails can be found here.
In Tasmania a limited harvest of brushtails for their skins is licenced by the state government.
Menkhorst and Knight, Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia
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