Mountain rescue for the pygmy possum

A discovery below the snowline suggests mountain pygmy possums might cope with climate change better than we thought. James Mitchell Crow reports. 

The Australian mammal thought to be most at risk of extinction due to climate change might not be so vulnerable as previously thought. Hayley Bates at UNSW and her colleagues have discovered a new colony of mountain pygmy possums living below the snowline, challenging the view that the animals relied on snow as a trigger for breeding.

Bates had previously identified clues that the mammals might have a broader distribution than thought. Fossil records show that, for much of its 25 million-year history, the species lived in warmer, lowland rainforests. Second, they had been bred in Canberra, outside and exposed to natural conditions year-round.

“I wanted to put snow aside and look at some of the other factors that might be restricting their range,” says Bates. She laid traps further down the mountain to see whether other species might be restricting the animal’s range. What she found in her traps were the pygmy possums themselves.

The find shows that the possums are more flexible than previously thought, says Bates. But the species will still face challenges from warming. Populations at the top of the mountain may be exposed to colder conditions if they lose their insulating blanket of snow. At lower elevations, a lack of snow could see water sources dry up.

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