The cool south: forest fossickers – which fluffball has your support?

Wet forests and temperate rainforests can be found in Victoria and Tasmania, as well as in areas at high altitude in New South Wales and Queensland. The wetter coastal regions on the southeast coast have provided habitat and acted as refuges for forest-dwelling flora, fauna, and fungi for millions of years. So, it should come as no surprise that wet forests and temperate rainforests have a high level of endemism and are very important for the conservation of biodiversity.

One endemic mammal is the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri). To get around speedily and safely in these wet forests, these petite possums have small grooves on their feet, a bit like the grooves in our fingerprints, that help them grip and go full-on Fast & Furious through the slippery trunks of wet eucalypt trees.

A leadbeater's possum and it's foot
A Leadbeater’s possum and it’s foot, with grooves that help them grip. Credit: Kita Ashman

Unlike the common brushtail possum you’ve probably seen tucking into your backyard compost, Leadbeater’s possums are much harder to spot due to their rarity and lofty nests, which are usually tucked high-up and away in tree hollows. These possums use their teeth to strip thin pieces of bark from eucalypt trees, which they carry back to their dens in bundles held by their tails. They then use these strips to create incredibly snug nests that often have multiple chambers to make room for the family units these amazing animals live in.

One species that definitely doesn’t live in happy little family units, but can also be found scuttling around these forests, is the dusky antechinus (Antechinus swainsonii). Adult duskies lead a solitary life, socialising only during mating and when mothers are raising young. These feisty little carnivorous marsupials occupy alpine heath and tall, open, wet forests from south-eastern Queensland to south-western Victoria on the mainland, as well as across the ditch in Tassie. Like other antechinus species, the males are here for a good time, not a long time. They have a short and vigorous mating season which occurs over winter, after which nearly all of the males die – live fast, die young.

Video of a southern greater glider, gliding between tree canopies. Credit: Kita Ashman/WWF

Another species that calls these tall wet forests home is the southern greater glider (Petauroides volans). While these gliders might have all the grace of a blanket being dragged along the ground when they find themselves on the forest floor, it’s quite a different story when they take to the skies. These high-flying acrobats can cover distances of up to 100m in a single glide between the tree canopies of tall eucalypts.

In Victoria, these cool, wet forests are dominated by the magnificent mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans), a humbling tree giant that can extend over 100 metres into the sky and is the tallest flowering plant on earth. These forests are also incredibly important for communities and humanity in general. The mountain ash forests in Victoria’s Central Highlands can hold up to 1900 tonnes of carbon per hectare, making it the most carbon dense forest in the world. On top of this, these forests generate nearly all the drinking water for the 5 million or so people living in Melbourne.

A close up photo of a golden-tipped bat
Golden-tipped bat (Phoniscus papuensis). Credit: George Madani

About a third of Australia’s tropical rainforests are within UNESCO World Heritage Areas. They’re places of exceptional beauty, and both their rich biodiversity and World Heritage Area status are strong drivers of ecotourism and associated economic benefits. Unfortunately, many wet forests and cool temperate rainforests aren’t afforded the same level of protection and aren’t protected in World Heritage areas. These cool, wet forests are still being destroyed across large areas of Tasmania and New South Wales, with the latter having one of the greatest coverages of these forests and the worst track record for logging and forest clearing.

But it’s not all doom and gloom in the forest sphere, we had some pretty good news for Victorian forests earlier this year when the Victorian government announced an end to most native forest logging by 2024. This means that about 1.8 million hectares of these important cool, wet forests will be protected from logging, an incredible outcome for nature and for people, given the multitasking superpowers of these forests for capturing carbon and provisioning freshwater (among many other things).

Picture21. Ask kita about a caption. 850
Native forest logging. Credit: Kita Ashman

Here are the nominees:

Golden-tipped bat (Phoniscus papuensis), eastern coast of mainland Australia, and Papua New Guinnea

They roost in the bottom of suspended bird nests, excising a chamber below the nest where they happily freeload.

Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus), eastern Australia including small areas of SA.

They can live for 10 to 12 years in the wild, though females may live as long as 18 years.

Large-footed myotis (Myotis macropus), north and east coasts of mainland Australia

The only species of bat in Australia to capture fish for food, they skim across the surface of water and use their big feet to rake up aquatic insects and small fish.

Leadbeater’s possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri), central Victoria

This small possum can withstand freezing temperatures and remains active throughout winter without going into torpor.

Long-nosed potoroo (Potorous tridactylus), southeastern Australia including Tasmania

The length of their nose tends to increase the further south the population is located, though scientists aren’t sure why.

Narrow-toed feathertail glider (Acrobates pygmaeus), south-eastern mainland Australia

They are the only mammal in the world that can walk on vertical panes of glass, just like a gecko.

Quokka (Setonix brachyurus), two offshore islands and fragmented mainland sites in south-west WA

They’ve been used in medical research, as they also suffer from the disease muscular dystrophy.

Southern greater glider (Petauroides volans), eastern coast of mainland Australia

They are the largest marsupial glider in the world, with a body length of up to 45 centimetres, plus an impressive tail length of up to 60 centimetres.

Southern long-nosed bandicoot (Perameles nasuta), eastern coast of mainland Australia

They are the largest member of the genus Perameles, the so-called ‘pouched badgers’. 

Spotted-tailed quoll (Dasyurus maculatus), eastern Australia including Tasmania

A superb predator, they have a shrill cry that sounds like a bench saw.

Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), Tasmania

An incredibly effective immune system allows the Tasmanian devil to heal naturally from some truly horrific wounds.

Yellow-bellied glider (Petaurus australis), eastern coast of mainland Australia

They let out a loud banshee scream, best described as sounding like a satanic pig going through an exorcism.

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