Names: Common ring-tailed possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus); Wali in Dharug language around Sydney, Garrawirr in Gamilaraay/Gamilaroi/Kamilaroi.
Size: Weight up to 1.1kg, length 30-35cm, with tail 30-35cm.
Diet: Vegetarian, eating mainly leaves, with some fruit and flowers.
Habitat: Ringtails live in forests, woodlands, coastal thickets, gardens and urban areas across eastern Australia and Tasmania, from Adelaide to Cape York.
Superpower/fun fact: Ringtails forage at night, then while resting during the day they excrete what they have eaten in the form of soft faecal pellets (poo) that they then eat, ensuring each meal is consumed twice. It makes for foraging efficiency – but probably best not to try it yourself.
What’s not to love about ringtails? They are surely one of the most beautiful of Australian mammals: their marvellous fathomless eyes, richly coloured fur, gorgeous white-tipped tail with the curly bit at the end, elegant appearance, and inoffensive nature.
They try hard to fit in, to accommodate their lives to what humanity has thrown at them. To date, they have survived, managing to persist still in – indeed, to grace – the suburbs and gardens of most towns across much of eastern Australia and Tasmania, from Adelaide to north of Brisbane. In living with us, they have few of the bad habits of their boofhead relatives, the brush-tailed possums. They lead exemplary lives.
They are industrious and homely. From twigs, ferns, leaves, soft bark and moss – carried in their curled tails – they weave exquisite and cosy nests (dreys) in which to sleep the day away. They form enduring family groups, with both parents caring for the young, typically twins: the parents carry their young on their backs, snuggling into their soft fur.
Unlike the harsh calls made by other possums and koalas, common ring-tailed possums are almost musical, more like a birdcall.
They are vegans, consuming only leaves, fruits and flowers. Sure, they do eat some fruits from orchards and our gardens, and seem to be remarkably partial to rosebuds, but such consumption is a small and bearable price for us to pay for the gift of their presence in our lives.
We have made their lives extremely challenging. They are not good with cars. The cats, foxes and dogs we have introduced to this country kill and consume very many of them: they are not fighters. On days of extreme heat, they fall dead from their trees, an ominous response likely to render them highly vulnerable to climate change. Their snug nests offer no protection from wildfire. They were hunted for their fur up until at least the 1960s. And of course, we have cleared much of their habitat. Also, in the last few years, they have been found to be victims and vectors for the horrific Buruli disease, a weird flesh-eating ulcer that also affects humans. Notwithstanding this array of threats, they still share our lives and our land.
In this competition, the common ring-tailed possum can also be considered an ambassador to Australia’s other ringtail possums, including the closely related and critically endangered western ringtail possum (ngwayir) from around Perth, the green (green!) ringtail possum from far north Queensland, and the elusive rock ringtail possum from northern Australia. Collectively, these share many of the same ecological and behavioural characteristics: the common ring-tailed possum happens to be the species best known to, and maybe even loved by, most Australians.
We should recognise and show our appreciation for its stoic persistence, its gentle disposition, its co-habitation with us, and the gift of nature it brings to our towns.
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John Woinarski is an ecologist and conservation biologist, based at Charles Darwin University. He is fascinated with almost all animals and they manner in which they live. As an intemperate youth, he was wont to shake small trees with ringtail nests, trying to catch them as they woke, frightened: this article is penance.
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