Endangered mountain pygmy possum

For the first time, a breeding technique known as genetic rescue has been shown to increase population numbers and survival rates of the endangered mountain pygmy possum, now at their highest numbers since 1996.

The study was conducted by a team from La Trobe University, the University of Melbourne, CESAR, Mt Buller Mt Stirling Resort Management, and the University of New South Wales.

Dr Andrew Weeks from the University of Melbourne led the project, published in the international journal Nature Communications.

Genetic rescue was used to introduce male mountain pygmy possums, Burramys parvus, from a healthy population at Mt Hotham, to a recipient group of females at Mt Buller. The two groups had become physically isolated from each other over 20,000 years.

This isolation had led to inbreeding and a lack of the genetic variation that is essential for overcoming disease and ensuring the ability to thrive.

Dr Weeks said that since the genetic rescue program began in 2011, the possum population has gone through rapid growth and is now larger than when the population was first discovered in 1996.

“Before 2010, there was thought to be only a handful of individuals at Mt Buller,” Dr Weeks said.

“Now, Mt Buller females from the genetic rescue are bigger and have more offspring that survive longer than the progeny of pygmy possums born outside the program. We now estimate the population to be over 200 possums.”

Co-author Dr Ian Mansergh from La Trobe University said the study’s findings mark an important development in conservation management.

“Our study confirms genetic rescue as a successful conservation technique, especially when used for small, isolated populations of threatened species,” Dr Mansergh said.

Along with genetic rescue, there was also a program of habitat restoration, predator control and environmental protection instituted by the land manager, Mt Buller Mt Stirling Resort Management.

The researchers said this was essential to avoid losing the benefits of genetic rescue if populations cannot expand and still face the threats that reduced the population in the first place.

Media Contact: Claire Bowers – c.bowers@latrobe.edu.au - 9479 2315 / 0437279903

Photo credit: Tom Kelly, Mt Buller Mt Stirling Resort Management.

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