Brush-tailed phascogale: long-distance lovers

Name: Brush-tailed phascogale (Phascogale tapoatafa)

Size:  Head and body length 160-225 cm; tail length 160-225 cm. Weight ~200 g

Habitat: Patchy and disjointed distribution with populations in SW Western Australia, the Kimberley region, central Victoria, eastern NSW and eastern QLD. They occur in dry forests and woodlands, including remnant patches on farmlands and roadsides, and prefer areas with rough-barked tree species, an open understorey, logs, and a deep litter layer.

Conservation status: Near Threatened (IUCN) 

Superpower: Long-distance lovers. Male phascogales will travel widely, sometimes through sub-optimal habitat, and at speeds of up to 80 meters/min (4.8 km/h) to find mates.

Photo of a brush-tailed phascogale on a tree-branch
Brush-tailed phascogale. Credit: Henry Cook/Getty Images

Brush-tailed phascogales are small marsupials about the size of a rat. They have strong paws to help them climb trees, big beady eyes to help them detect predators, a pointy snout, and a beautiful bottle-brush tail. They are rarely spotted by people as they are only active at night, are shy, agile and solitary, and occur at low densities.

They spend most of their time in trees, sleeping in hollows during the day and foraging at night for food under tree bark. Occasionally they forage in logs on the ground and in leaf litter. Mostly, they are searching for big juicy insects like spiders and centipedes, but they have also been known to hunt mice, small birds, and sometimes chooks.

Brush-tailed phascogale walking in grass.
Brush-tailed phascogale walking in grass. Credit: Warren Garst/Colorado State University Libraries, some rights reserved (CC BY-SA 4.0)

When phascogales feel threatened, they tap loudly on the tree and raise their tail hairs to distract and decoy predators. If they need to, they make a lightning-fast escape, by leaping up to 2 meters, and spiralling up trees.

Female phascogales build elaborate nursery nests in tree hollows. Made of shredded bark and feathers, the nests are well-insulated, with a tunnel leading to a cosy chamber lined with feathers or fur. In human-modified areas, they use all sorts of unusual items, such as wool, money, and even undies to add extra insulation to their nests.

Close-up photo of a brush-tailed phascogale's head and front paw
Brush-tailed phascogale. Credit: Miropa/Getty Images

Brush-tailed phascogales live fast and die young. This species has a frenzied annual mating season, where males travel far and fast (at a rate of up to 80 meters per minute) to find females. Males don’t make it to their first birthday. They die from stress and exhaustion at the end of the breeding season. It’s a noble sacrifice they make for the continuation of their species, freeing up food and resources for the next generation.

Despite this unrelenting enthusiasm, the brush-tailed phascogale has undergone local extinctions, range contractions, and a decline in numbers. Phascogales need our help. Much of their habitat has been removed for agriculture, few trees with hollows remain, and they are a perfect snack size for introduced predators like foxes and cats.

If you live in or near phascogale habitat, you can help them by looking after nearby patches of forest or woodland, putting up nest boxes, and keeping pets contained at night. The phascogales will be grateful – and you might even be lucky enough to get a glimpse of these special, elusive woodland creatures.

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