Red-tailed phascogale: a voratious appetite and ferocious sex drive

Name: Red-tailed phascogale (Phascogale calura)

Size: Males: 254mm average length and 60g. Females: 233mm average length and 43g.

Diet: Carnivorous with a varied diet, and can feed on insects and spiders, but also small birds and small mammals, notably the house mouse (Mus musculus).

Habitat/range: Restricted to mature Wandoo or Rock woodlands in the southern WA wheatbelt – once widespread across woodland habitats throughout WA to the Murray Darling basin.

Conservation status: Vulnerable.

Superpower/fun fact: The grace of a glider, the ferociousness of a quoll, the cuteness of a possum and the curiosity of a numbat.

Photo of a red-tailed phascogale climbing up a tree
Red-tailed phascogale. Credit: Laurence Berry/AWC

Meet the red-tailed phascogale, the tree-climbing, insatiable cousin of the quoll, but 20 times smaller. But don’t let its size fool you, nor its scientific name (which translates to beautiful-tailed pouch-weasel), this quart-cup critter is a ferocious carnivore. The red-tailed phascogale is a nocturnal predator which lives in forests where they leap from canopy to canopy making death-defying jumps up to 2m between trees, showcasing acrobatic ability. When hunger strikes, they will make their way down to the ground to forage on insects, spiders, small birds, and small mammals – a favourite snack being the pesky house mouse. And oh boy can they eat! Red-tailed phascogales will consume 18–34% of their own body weight every day and instead of using up precious chow time to look for something to drink, this badass critter metabolises all the water it needs from its prey.

Photo of a red-tailed phascogale in a tree hollow
Red-tailed phascogale. Credit: Brad Leue/AWC

The true frat boys of the Australian continent, the males hit the dating scene with gusto. For one short month they sexually exert themselves to exhaustion (leading to death)! Taking the phrase “going out with a bang” to the next level, this semelparous behaviour means that males in the wild never reach their first birthday. The females however can live up to two to three years, producing a litter of up to 13 young each breeding season. This extreme mating is an evolutionary tactic to ensure genetic diversity and (unconventionally) increase survivability as offspring from the same litter can be sired by multiple males, and generations don’t have to compete for resources.

Photo of a red-tailed phascogale climbing up a tree
Red-tailed phascogale. Credit: Laurence Berry/AWC

Unfortunately, the decline of the red-tailed phascogale across the Australian continent is a story we are all too familiar with for our native species in the critical weight range. Predation by the invasive and cunning feral cat are their primary threat, coupled with feral foxes, habitat loss, and altered fire regimes which have led to significant loss across their historical distribution. As they like to call a tree hollow home, they are reliant on old growth vegetation, preferentially tall and dense, which need to be protected from both land clearing and inappropriate fire regimes. They are now listed as extinct in NSW, NT, and Victoria, endangered in SA and conservation dependent in WA.

Photo of a red-tailed phascogale on the ground
Red-tailed phascogale. Credit: Brad Leue/AWC

However, efforts are being made to protect these wonderful critters by preserving critical habitat, reducing and removing invasive predators, restoring fire regimes and protecting them within feral predator proof safe havens. Let’s not let these animals slip away into the history books, and instead protect and conserve this wonderful species to ensure they continue to live fast, die young, and go out with a bang on their own terms.

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