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Mountain Pygmy Possums -

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NARRATION

If you're a snow-bunny ski runs are great fun. But if you're a mountain Pygmy Possum, yeah not so
good. Over the last decade possum numbers at Mount Buller have been decimated.

Dean Heinzes

This population has experienced one of the most rapid declines in genetic variation that's been
recorded.

Dr Andrew Weeks

It's staggering really, by 2006 it was estimated there was only about thirty individuals um, and
from that um, they were mostly all females, there was very, very few males on the mountain.

NARRATION

In fact there might have been just one male left.

Dr Graham Phillips

Now if you think this is just another story about a little creature facing extinction because of
unstoppable development, you're wrong. Scientists here are trialling a very different method for
saving threatened species, in fact it's never been done anywhere else in Australia.

NARRATION

The traditional approach is to breed up threatened species in captivity then release them into the
wild. The new idea, called translocation, involves going to another mountain, Hotham, where there
are similar, although not identical possums and catching some of the males.

Dr Andrew Weeks

So bring some males from Mount Hotham and move them over to Mount Buller and see whether they could
mate with the, the females on Mount Buller. And then we let natural selection take its course. You
know that's the whole process that, that we think works best.

NARRATION

A few months ago the Hotham blokes were released here at Buller. The radio tracking tags they were
fitted with certainly show they're hanging out with the Buller girls, but have any hybrid babies
been made? The only way to find out is to lay some traps and catch some baby possums. Next morning
I join some excited researchers to scour the mountain.

Man

Got a possum mate?

Lady

Yeah there's something, I don't know what it is though. Yeah it's a possum.

NARRATION

Dean and I have snared one too.

Dr Graham Phillips

Will she come onto my hand? Hello. Oh what a sweet thing. She's so light. Nimble little feet.

Dean Heinzes

So what I'll do is I'll just have a quick look to see if it's got a pouch and it does, so it's a
female. She's got contracted mammary glands or stretched mammary glands, which suggests that, that
she's probably had four young and they've sort of recently become independent. So they've left the
...

Dr Graham Phillips

Okay so maybe her four young are here somewhere, we might catch them.

Dean Heinzes

Yeah that's right, there could be four little ones running around. And there she goes. Deep into
the rocks and off to find some Bogong Moths.

NARRATION

Mountain Pygmy Possums don't live in trees, these rocks are home, fields of boulders packed with
Bogong Moths - the possum's main source of food. They eat up big in summer to get through the
winter hibernation.

Louise Perrin

We know in the possum's case that they're really sensitive to temperature changes and the reason
why they live in the bolder field is that it provides the most static temperature across the year,
so it's warm in winter and cool in summer.

NARRATION

And this is the problem at Buller, boulder fields have been cleared to make ski fields. Ski runs
criss-crossing the mountain break up the habitat because boulder free areas are no go zones for
possums. The remedy has been these artificial boulder fields.

Dr Graham Phillips

The little possums happily scurry around deep beneath these rocks, but they're terrified of open
areas like this ski field. So what they've done is built a tunnel of these rocks right underneath
the ski field, the possums will crawl under that and pop out the other side.

NARRATION

These tunnels reconnect the possum's habitat therefore improving their breeding. Meanwhile, back at
the traps there's been success.

Dr Andrew Weeks

Hey this one doesn't look like he's got an ear tag, Dean.

Dean Heinzes

Yeah it looks quite small, so look I'd say it's ...

Dr Andrew Weeks

You reckon it's a juvenile?

Dean Heinzes

... probably a, probably a juvenile.

Dr Andrew Weeks

Fantastic.

NARRATION

There's a chance this is a Hotham Buller cross.

Dean Heinzes

Most of ah, most of the juveniles at this time of the year are, weigh overall about twenty-five
grams.

Dr Andrew Weeks

Yep.

Dean Heinzes

Alright so we'll just wriggle in the right spot.

Dr Andrew Weeks

Let's get that DNA sample, get some hairs.

Dean Heinzes

A little bit of this fur.

NARRATION

Enticingly more juveniles were caught throughout the week. Now it's results time in the lab. A hair
sample from every juvenile caught on the mountain has its DNA extracted, that will give away
whether dad was from Buller or Hotham. And the results were stunning.

Dr Andrew Weeks

Of the sixteen juveniles that we collected, eight of those were fathered by a male from Mount
Hotham. Oh we, we popped a bottle of champagne immediately afterwards, it was a fantastic result
and totally unexpected that we'd get that, you know such a high rate of incorporation of the Mount
Hotham genes.

NARRATION

It's great news for the possum's future at Mount Buller. And it's not just Buller possums that
might be saved. Translocation could be a powerful new tool.

Dr Andrew Weeks

What we're doing here is really trying to establish a, a way forward for a lot of small mammals
that, that are currently on the, on the brink of extinction in Australia.

NARRATION

Then our uniquely Australian species will be here for many generations to come.

Topics: Environment, Genetics & DNA

Reporter: Dr Graham Phillips

Producer: Dr Graham Phillips

Researcher: Ingrid Arnott

Camera: Peter Healy

Sound: Paul Freeman

Editor: Toby Trappel

Story Contacts

Dean Heinze

Consultant Wildlife Ecologist

Dr Andrew Weeks

University of Melbourne

Louise Perrin

Environmental Services Manager

Mt Buller, VIC