Common brush-tailed possum: common, but far from ordinary

Name(s): Common brush-tailed possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)

Size: Length 35-55cm(body), plus a 25-40cm long tail. Can weigh up to 4.5kg

Diet: Omnivore, feeding mostly on eucalyptus leaves, supplemented with a variety of other foods.

Habitat: Found in a variety of habitats across Australia, but absent from arid areas. Introduced to New Zealand.

Conservation status: Not endangered

Superpower: Without doubt, adaptability! These versatile marsupials can live just as happily in the roof of your urban home as they can in a remote forest tree hollow. They’ll eat anything from eucalyptus leaves to bird eggs, and can withstand both the sweaty summers of the tropical north and the freezing winters of Tasmania!

Common brush-tailed possum.
Common brush-tailed possum. Credit: Tom Brakefield/Getty Images

The common brushtail possum is one of our most familiar possums, instantly recognisable to most Aussies. It’s scientific name basically translates to “furry-tailed fox face” – for obvious reasons.

This native marsupial is the brazen intruder you’ll hear scurrying around on (or in!) your roof, or catch eating your precious veggie patch in the dead of night.

But take a moment to marvel at some of the lesser-known facts about this incredibly adaptable acrobat – they may well influence your vote for Australian Mammal of the Year!

These are one of the most widespread marsupials in Australia, found from Perth to Port Macquarie, Darwin to Devonport. They are important totem animals for many Indigenous peoples, and possum skin cloaks were once a significant part of ritual and ceremonial life.

Common brushies can vary greatly in both size and colour; in the colder south, Tassie individuals are the heavyweight champions, weighing in at almost twice the size of their punier northern counterparts. This is a common pattern in widespread mammals and thought to be related to physiology and body heat regulation in different climates.

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Like many arboreal (tree-dwelling) marsupials in Australia, common brush-tailed possums use large hollow-bearing trees as daytime den sites. But, in keeping with their supremely adaptable nature, this species has also been known to den in other surprising, and sometimes unwelcome, locations when hollows are lacking, including rock crevices, the roots of mangrove trees, logs, burrows of other animals, and, of course, in the crawl and roof spaces of urban houses.

Common brush-tails usually have one offspring each year, although some individuals can have two, and twins are rare but also possible. There is even one report of an adoption of pouch-young! Even more amazingly, researchers have found evidence that female possums can, somehow, manipulate the sex of their offspring based on factors such as the availability of den sites, and even how old they are when they give birth!

Common brush-tailed possums have less specialised adaptations compared to other strictly leaf-eating marsupials such as greater gliders and koalas. This means they can’t survive on just leafy greens, and supplement with flowers, nectar, eggs, and even baby birds, to get enough protein and other nutrients. Of course, in urban areas they are well known for scoffing just about anything – I once saw one dig into a bowl of spicy beef burrito!

Common brush-tailed possum with its young on its back.
Common brush-tailed possum with its young on its back. Credit: Ken Griffiths/Getty Images

But this adaptability hasn’t been enough to save our most familiar fluffy flexitarian from the same threatening processes that endanger its more specialised relatives. Continued habitat loss and land-use change, combined with increased risk of predation by introduced cats and foxes, has seen the historical range of common brush-tailed possums shrink considerably since European settlement, particularly in arid areas.

So, maybe it’s time to rethink your relationship with these cheeky backyard critters? Mistakenly much maligned in urban circles, in reality common brushies are the most versatile possums on the block and deserve your vote!

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