The Leadbeater's possum is a small, fast-moving arboreal marsupial possum that lives high in the treetops of old-growth forests in a very small habitat in Victoria, Australia. It scampers along branches in the forest canopy and leaps gracefully from one tree to another.
It is extremely rare. In fact, until 1961, it was thought to be extinct because no one had seen a live animal in over 50 years.
The Leadbeater's possum has recently been classified as critically endangered after a shape drop in their numbers as a result of the devastating Black Saturday bushfires of 2009. Some claim that there are less than 1,000 left. Best official scientific estimates of their current numbers are in the vicinity of 4,000-11,000 animals. Most importantly, there may be as few as 1,500 to 4,000 breeding pairs on whom the overall survival of these animals depends.
Scientific name: Gymnobelideus leadbeateri
The Sad Story of "George" - the Leadbeater's Possum
The photo of the Leadbeater's possum at the start of this article is that of George. George was found dead on the side of a logging road in the Victorian Central Highlands in 2011. It appears that the mountain ash tree in which he had made his home was a victim of logging, and as his home was being carted away George fell off the logging truck and died. He was preserved by a taxidermist.
Leadbeater's Possum – Description What do Leadbeater's Possums Look Like?
The Leadbeater's possum has thick, soft fur which is grey to greyish-brown on its upper body and beige on its under-body. It has beige hairless paws with sharp claws. The Leadbeater's possum has large brown eyes, prominent ears and a triangular jaw-line with a cute pink nose. Two of the other distinguishing characteristics is the beige patches under its eyes and dark stripe running down the top of its body. It is about 30cm long including its long bushy tail which is about half its body length. It weighs about 140gm. It is similar in appearance to the sugar glider possum.
The Leadbeater's possum's scientific Name is Gymnobelideus leadbeateri which means naked dart. It is so named because it leaps from branch to branch and tree to tree and unlike other leaping possums, such as the sugar glider, it doesn't have a flying membrane to enable it to glide, hence naked — no flying membrane. Its species name is in honour of John Leadbeater the first taxidermist at the National Museum of Victoria.
Leadbeater's Possum – Lifestyle How Leadbeater's Possums Live
Leadbeater's possums live in colonies of 2 to 12 animals. A colony usually consists of a breeding pair, their offspring, and unrelated adult males. They live in matriarchal societies led by a dominant female. Members of the colony aggressively defend their territory from other Leadbeater's possums especially other females, including the matriarch’s own adult daughters. Because other females are not welcome in the territories of established colonies, the attrition rate among young adult females is very high. As a result, males outnumber females at a ratio 3 to 1.
Leadbeater's Possum – Habitat Where do Leadbeater's Possums Live?
Leadbeater's possums, today, live almost exclusively in a tiny pocket of land measuring just 70km by 80km in alpine and sub-alpine woodland forests of the Central Highlands in Victoria, Australia. (See map - the little red dot). These forests of mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans), alpine ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis), shining gum (Eucalyptus nitens) and snow gum (Eucalyptus camphora) are located at altitudes of 400–1,500m above sea level. A small isolated population also lives in a lowland swamp forest at Yellingbo 50 km east of Melbourne, Victoria.
Each Leadbeater's possum colony lives in a territory of 1-3 hectares and may have multiple nesting hollows within this territory. They move from nest to nest depending on their feeding requirements. These nests are built inside tree hollows and lined with loosely matted bark.
Leadbeater's possums have very specific habitat requirements. The key factors are; old-growth forests with hanging bark ribbons, wattle trees in the forest under-storey and the density of vegetation.
The Leadbeater's possum colonies nest in tree hollows with an internal diameter of 30cm and above. As these animals are communal nesters this tree hollow size provides sufficient room for the entire colony to reside in comfortably. It is only old-growth eucalypt trees such as Mountain Ash, Alpine Ash, and Shining Gum trees, usually older than 150 years, which have these types of nesting hollows. A density of more than one hollow-bearing tree per hectare vital for the survival of these animals. Leadbeater possums prefer the hollows of dead trees over those of live ones. This may be because dead tree hollows are less damp and better drained than those if live trees.
Leadbeater’s possums are arboreal marsupials who live in forest canopies and rarely descend to the ground. They clamber and leap from branch to branch and tree to tree as they forage for food. Because these possums do not have the ability to glide, they require dense vegetation to allow them to move through the forest.
Leadbeater's possums forage through the shedding and hanging ribbons of bark of their favourite trees and feast off insects that hide there. They also collect strips of fibrous bark to construct their nests. They transport little bundles of bark to their tree hollow in their curled up tails.
Leadbeater's Possum – Diet What do Leadbeater's Possums Eat?
The Leadbeater's possum is an omnivore. Its diet consists of both animal and plant material. Its primary diet consists of insects such as spiders, beetles, crickets which are found on the barks of eucalypt trees found in its habitat. It may find these creatures on the surface or it may actively pry away the bark to reach insects lurking beneath. Tree crickets which shelter beneath the bark of Mountain Ash eucalypt during winter are vital for this animal's survival. The Leadbeater's possum sometimes also ventures down to the forest floor where it may hunt for millipedes, centipedes and various other insects under leaf litter and in hollow logs.
The Leadbeater's possum supplements this animal diet with plant matter too. This includes honeydew (photo) which is a sugary substance secreted by some sap-sucking insects and usually found on the surface of leaves. They also bite into the leaves of some types of wattle, acacias and eucalypt trees and feed on the sap that exudes from the wound. It also sips on flower nectar.
Leadbeater's Possum – Reproduction Leadbeater's Possum Babies
Only one monogamous pair, known as a breeding pair, will actually procreate. The rest will stay celibate.
Breeding usually takes place twice a year during late spring and early summer and in late autumn to early winter. The female gives birth to one or two offspring about 20 days after conception. As with all marsupials, these young make a perilous journey from the mother's birth canal to her pouch where they latch on to a nipple.
The young spend about 70 days in their mother's pouch before being left in the nest for another 50 or so days. The young will then join their mother to forage for food until they are fully independent by the time they reach about 7-10 months. They reach sexual maturity at about 2 years.
Leadbeater's possums have a lifespan of about 5-9 years in the wild.
Leadbeater's Possum – Predators What Animals Kill Leadbeater's Possums?
Predators include kookaburras, owls, goannas, snakes, quolls and feral cats.
Leadbeater's Possum – Threats What Threats Do Leadbeater's Possums Face?
The Leadbeater's possum and powerful logging interests both love old-growth forests. The possum for its survival. And loggers for profit. Unfortunately, it is the little possum who invariably loses as logging companies chop down more and more if their habitat.
Natural disasters such as the devastating Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 which destroyed 42% of the Leadbeater’s possum's forest habitat can have irreversible impacts on this endangered animal's survival.
The loss of nesting sites and the fragmentation of areas of suitable habitat has led to small non-viable populations and a significant decline in possum numbers. These animals have undergone a very severe population decline in recent years with numbers declining by as much as 80% in some locations since the mid-1980s.
Leadbeater's Possum – Conservation Status Is the Leadbeater's Possum Endangered?
The Leadbeater's possum is listed as critically endangered.
On the 22nd April 2015, Greg Hunt, the Minister for the Environment announced that the Leadbeater's Possum would be listed as a 'critically endangered' species under the EPBC Act. Consequentially millions of dollars are to be spent in habitat revival, logging restrictions and research.
Note: Maybe a similar concerted effort should be also spent on saving less glamorous cassowary. Only 4,500 of these prehistoric birds survive today.
All Rights Reserved. (Last Updated: Feb 25, 2021)