Tiny possum could be Australia's first climate change victim

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 26, 2013 12:38 AM

By Thuy Ong

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A one-degree rise in temperature could spell doom for a rare Australian possum within a decade, potentially making the tiny, long-tailed marsupial the continent's first victim of climate change, researchers said.

Mountain Pygmy Possums have been a part of the Australian ecosystem for more than 25 million years, but only 2,000-2,600 are believed to remain in the wilds of the Snowy Mountains, a range that extends between New South Wales and Victoria states.

"There's so many ways that a change in temperature can spell doom for these possums in those environments," said Michael Archer, a paleontologist and naturalist at the University of New South Wales.

The possums, which grow up to 14 cm (5.5 inches) and weigh 10-50 grams (0.4-1.8 ounces), hibernate in rock piles for the six months of the year when snow blankets the mountains.

The snow serves as an insulator that prevents the rock piles from growing too cold and keeps the animals from freezing.

Projections by Archer and other researchers see a 1 degree Celsius temperature rise by 2020 and a 3 degree rise by 2050, according to a study published in the journal Australian Zoologist.

The mean temperature in Australia has increased by about 0.7C since 1960, with 2001-2010 the warmest decade on record, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

A lack of snow also causes the possums to come out of hibernation before the moths and mountain plums they feed on become available, causing the animals to starve.

"With even a one degree rise in annual average temperature, we're likely to lose the snow," Archer said. "The insulation is the difference between life and death in that habitat."

Scientists hope to establish a breeding colony in the lowland rainforests to re-acclimate the possums to warmer climates like those where their ancestors used to live.

"If we don't do this, it's pretty much guaranteed we're going to lose this possum to climate change," Archer said.

(Reporting By Thuy Ong; Editing by Elaine Lies and Paul Tait)