Possums along with kangaroos and koalas are iconic Australian fauna. Another Aussie icon, Dame Edna Everage, fondly used the term “Hello possums!” in her stage and TV shows.
Australians have always lived alongside these small nocturnal marsupials benefiting from their silky smooth fur and leather. In 1837 possums were introduced into New Zealand to establish a fur trade. Unfortunately, with no predators and plenty of edible vegetation, possums have become such a problem in New Zealand that The National Possum Control Agencies was created in the early 1990s to control the problem.
The common brushtail possum is a nocturnal, semi-arboreal marsupial of the family Phalangeridae, it is native to Australia, and the second largest of the possums.
Like most possums, the common brushtail possum is nocturnal. It is mainly a folivore, but has been known to eat small mammals such as rats. In most Australian habitats, leaves of eucalyptus are a significant part of the diet but rarely the sole item eaten. The tail is prehensile and naked on its lower underside. There are four colour variations: silver-grey, brown, black, and gold.
It is the Australian marsupial most often seen by city-dwellers, as it is one of few that thrives in cities, as well as a wide range of natural and human-modified environments. Around human habitations, common brushtails are inventive and determined foragers with a liking for fruit trees, vegetable gardens, and kitchen raids.
The possum has large and pointed ears. It has a bushy tail (hence its name) that is adapted to grasping branches, prehensile at the end with a hairless ventral patch. Its forefeet have sharp claws and the first toe of each hind foot is clawless but has a strong grasp. The possum grooms itself with the third and fourth toes which are fused together. It has a thick and woolly pelage that varies in colour depending on the subspecies. Colour patterns tend to be silver-gray, brown, black, red or cream. The ventral areas are typically lighter and the tail is usually brown or black. The muzzle is marked with dark patches.
The common brushtail possum has a head and body length of 32–58 cm with a tail length of 24–40 cm. It weighs 1.2-4.5 kg. Males are generally larger than females. In addition, the coat of the male tends to be reddish at the shoulders. As with most marsupials, the female brushtail possum has a forward-opening, well-developed pouch. The chest of both sexes has a scent gland that emits a reddish secretion which stains that fur around it. It marks its territory with these secretions.
Possum population control
Despite natural possum population control in Australia (feral animals, dingoes, bush fires and less abundant vegetation), Common Ringtail Possums can be found all along the East of Australia and SW Western Australia, and Common Brushtail Possums flourish throughout mainland Australia, Tasmania and Kangaroo Island.
While legislative possum control is permitted in Tasmania to protect crops and for commercial trade in meat and skins, strict regulations govern moving and trapping possums in the rest of the country.
So, for many Australians these days, possums are not simply cute, furry creatures seen ambling across overhead branches at dusk, but also frustratingly destructive pests which have moved into our backyards, homes and sheds to eat our prized garden produce and leave our verandas smelling from their urination and droppings.
Fact 1: Diet
Possums are mainly herbivores (plant eaters), favouring eucalyptus and other leaves, ferns, buds, flowers and fruits. Brushtail Possums are known to be tolerant of many plant toxins and will eat trees that other animals find poisonous. Possums will also eat insects, moths, grubs snails, birds’ eggs and babies. They particularly like young new plant shoots and unfortunately are drawn to domestic gardens. Here they will eat everything from roses to rock melons, camellias to carrots, magnolias to mangoes, wisteria to wattle, and can decimate a veggie garden in no time.
Other food which we may grow for ourselves that possums love includes:
Fruits: Apples, pears, grapes and bananas.
Vegetables: corn, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and broccoli
Native species: Many of the Acacia and Wattle species, and also many Eucalypts.
Fact 2: Defence from enemies
Possums are territorial and will urinate on their area and rub oil from glands on their chest, chin and anus to mark it as theirs. They are generally shy and not aggressive and will often stare at each other with erect ears to defend their territory.
The common Brushtail Possum often has a red-brown stain on its chest fur from a scent gland which it uses to mark its territory.
Brushtail possums have a range of vocalizations such as clicks, hisses, grunts and coughs, chattering and screeching. Ringtail Possums will secrete a strong smelling liquid from their anal glands if handled. If they are trapped however, possums will defend themselves.
Fact 3: Habitat
Possums are arboreal animals and spend most of their time in rainforests, eucalypt forests and wooded garden areas and shrubs that have dense foliage near a water source. While they do not dig underground dens, they are happy to take up residence in tree hollows, and the Ringtail Possum will build a soccer ball sized nest (drey) several metres above ground in dense foliage which they line with leaves, grass and soft bark.
Although they prefer tree-dwelling, possums will seek out house roofs, garages, sheds and also chimneys.
Fact 4: Behaviour
Possums are nocturnal and mainly feed between dusk and dawn.
Brushtail Possums are generally lone creatures, choosing company when they want to breed. Ringtail Possums however, have larger family groups where one male and one or two females will share a drey and forage together for food at night and they share parenting duties. The Ringtail Possum male is currently the only possum known to help care for its young.
With both Ringtail and Brushtail possums the newly born will crawl to the mother’s pouch where it will receive milk from a teat for around 4-5 months. The young leave the pouch and suckle for another 4-8 weeks riding on their parent’s back until fully weaned.
Once they reach 13 months of age, possums are sexually active. With an average life span of 6-7 years and up to 11 years, that gives possums plenty of opportunity to have lots of babies, especially the Common Ringtail Possum which can have 2 and sometimes 3 joeys at a time!
Possums are incredibly agile! They can climb vertical walls and have been known to jump from a tree to roof up to 4 metres away! They can pull off roof tiles and squeeze through the smallest of holes. They have been seen walking along power lines and balancing on fine branches.
They are as inventive as they are supple! One possum pair eager to get their paws on tasty garden veggies was witnessed balancing like acrobats: one hanging from a branch, holding the other’s back legs in its front paws and lowering him down the tree!
Fact 5: Destruction
Possums aren’t aggressive, however they do have the tendency to eat whatever they can and take shelter anywhere they feel safe, including inside the household roof.
The most common types of destruction possums can do to our home include: defecating on sheds, attics or house verandas, raiding poultry houses to eat chicks and eggs, tearing insulation and ductwork, and pilfering garbage bins and bird feeders. They also mark their territory with scent glands and urine, which smells pungent and is unhygienic.
Other wild life can leave similar trade marks. To be certain that any damage was caused by possums and not another native animal, check for their foot tracks.
Fact 6: Fur, Skin and Meat
Possum fur is incredibly smooth and silky with hollow fibre, providing perfect insulation and soft, light garments. Currently up to 10,000 possums are commercially killed in Tasmania for the domestic fur and skin market and also the domestic meat market. There are plans to expand this total commercially to up to 100,000 under the Tasmanian Management Plan for the Commercial Harvest and Export of Brushtail Possums.
For crop protection alone around 300,000 Brushtail Possums are killed each year in Tasmania under permit. These measures are taken to decrease the potential destruction of crops while ensuring the possum population does not become extinct.
Fact 7: Diseases and immunities
While bovine tuberculosis is a problem in New Zealand possums, there is no evidence that Australian possums carry the disease. In fact Australia is tuberculosis free.
Possums, however, can carry a variety of mites, ticks, other parasites, and bacterial infections, some of which can be transmitted to animals and/or humans. Possum faeces may also carry the buruli bacteria, which can cause sizeable skin ulcers in humans. Barwon Health Associate Professor Daniel O’Brien has said that: “a good public health measure is to remove the possum faeces from the area as much as possible and wash your hands as much as you can after that to minimise potential exposures.”
Fact 8: Unique Tail
The Brushtail Possum has a prehensile tip to its tail which allows it to grasp branches as if it had another hand. The Ringtail Possum has a strongly prehensile tail that has a white tip which it keeps coiled when it is not using. Both will use their tails for carrying nesting materials such as bunches of grass by looping their tails around them.
Fact 9: Communication
Both jack (male) and jill (female) possums will attract the attention of other possums by making smacking noises. Joeys however will sneeze and hiss when they are stressed or in danger.
Fact 10: Major Disadvantages
Possums can be destructive to trees and wildlife as they feed on almost any food available. They can also destroy what is in the home roof once it becomes their shelter.
Commercial crops can be devastated, as can home gardens and prized trees, shrubs, bushes and flowers.
Some diseases can be passed from possums to humans through contact with either the animal or their faeces.