Torresian striped possum: stripes are in this season

Name: Torresian striped possum (Dactylopsila trivirgata), previously known as the common striped possum

Size: Length 25-28 cm (head and body), plus a tail of 33-37 cm; weight 310-545g

Diet: Invertebrates, including wood boring beetle larvae, and sap from trees

Habitat: Limited distribution, occurring in tropical rainforests and adjacent woodlands of north-east Queensland plus in Papua New Guinea

Conservation status: Least Concern

Superpower: Where to start on fun facts about this amazing little possum?? Well, it has the largest brain for its body size of any marsupial! It also has an elongated fourth finger that it uses to extract juicy grubs out of rotting timber – very handy!

Photography of a striped possum in a tree
Credit: JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons.

Sadly, many people have never even heard of this stunning little tropical rainforest marsupial, with its beautiful black and white stripes. Being a black-and-white striped possum, combined with their strong body smell, inevitably prompts some people to suggest that the Torresian striped possum is like a skunk. NO, they are not! While “stripeys” do have a fairly strong body smell, it is not a nasty smell at all.

One of my joys when working on these extraordinary animals was waking up under our tarp in the rainforest, tired and drowsy from a very long night’s work, and picking up the distinctive smell of a stripey on my hands from handling one the night before. What a delight to wake knowing you had captured one of these fascinating animals, still not well-known due to the difficulty of studying them in the wild.

Closeup portrait of striped possum
Credit: Kathrine Handasyde.

Striped possums spend most of their time in trees, and are wonderfully energetic and agile – however, unlike some of their cousins, such as the sugar glider, stripeys have no gliding membrane. No matter, because the rainforests they live in have highly complex aerial highways of branches and vines.

“Stripeys” are capable of racing through the canopy at considerable speed (a lot faster than me trying to keep up with them on the ground, carrying my radio-tracking gear). While they don’t always travel at high speed, they can cover surprising distances for their small body size – a couple of kilometres in an evening is no challenge for adult males.

When striped possums are on the move, they run rapidly along branches, then leap across gaps in the canopy. You can hear them crashing into the foliage as they land. This, and the fact that they often continue to feed when you locate them, apparently unfazed by your presence, makes me think they are not particularly shy. Instead, I think the reason they are rarely seen in the wild is because they occur at low abundance, in more remote forests where few people wander around with a headlamp.  

Photograph of a woman with cropped hair holding a striped possum
Credit: Kathrine Handasyde.

Striped possums can be feisty. They may be small, but you just don’t want to take these little animals for granted when handling them – they have enormously powerful jaws for their size! Oh, and by the way, they don’t just bite you when you upset them, they grind their teeth into your finger!

They also have an extraordinary loud call for their size. Researchers describe it as a night-shattering, rolling, guttural call: “gar-gair, gar-gair, gar-gair, gar-gair”. Our field team has heard this call when several stripeys are interacting with each other, when we have captured a possum, and once when we found a stripey at the entrance of a tree hollow with a python poised in striking distance!

In fact, I believe that pythons are probably a major predator of striped possums. One of our young males, Mickey, was fitted with a small radio-collar so I could track his movements and find his den trees. One day, when I went to locate him, I found a nasty smelly python scat on the ground, containing lots of fur, his radio-tag with its blue reflector, and the tuft of his once beautiful tail sticking out at one end. Very sad.

You develop a great fondness for wild animals when you monitor them closely – there is much more for field biologists than just the excitement of learning about the amazing biology of their study animals.

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