The study, recently published in Austral Ecology, used nesting boxes combined with heat-sensing cameras to determine how prevalent the extremely shy, fast-moving creature is in the box ironbark forests near Castlemaine.
It found 84 per cent of the 50 survey sites were visited by the phascogale, with its distinctive feather duster-like tail – far more than researchers were expecting.
La Trobe PhD candidate Jessica Lawton said the findings were surprising as the species is known to be in decline in Victoria, and has become locally extinct from some regions.
“Although the Mt Alexander region has around 35 per cent forest cover, which is substantial, it’s fragmented,” Ms Lawton said.
“We think phascogales are widely distributed there because they are supported by the large amount of forest, and they use the extensive connections along roadsides and creeks to move through the landscape.”
Although phascogales are found in several Australian states, Central Victoria is one of the threatened species’ last remaining strongholds.
Ms Lawton said attaching wildlife cameras to trees is the most reliable way to monitor phascogales.
“They are difficult to detect with techniques such as spotlighting and trapping– they are too nimble and clever,” Ms Lawton said.
Ms Lawton said the study highlighted the need for both public and private land managers to conserve phascogale habitat in the region.
“Conservation reserves and large tracts of native forests are critical – but so are patches of forest, wooded strips along roadsides and creeks, and scattered trees across farmland,” Ms Lawton said.
“Together they provide a mosaic of suitable habitat and connections across the region, which is vital for animals like the phascogale.”
The La Trobe study utilised 50 of the 150 phascogale nesting box sites installed throughout the Mt Alexander region by community conservation group, Connecting Country.
Thirteen local volunteers also contributed to the study, assisting with collecting data and installing wildlife cameras. Protecting phascogales is one of Connecting Country’s flagship projects.
The brush-tailed phascogale (sometimes called ‘tuan’) is small, with mostly grey fur, and a characteristic black bushy tail. Active at night, the creature climbs trees, and depends on tree hollows for shelter and nest sites.
Phascogales forage for spiders, centipedes and beetles on the bark of trees, in leaf litter on the ground, and on fallen timber and logs.
Phascogales normally require large areas of forest – up to 100 hectares – to roam and forage.
They have an extraordinary reproductive strategy: males live for one year only and die from stress following a frenzied mating season.
This means that even a single year with poor reproductive success can have a marked effect on a local population, even leading to local extinction.
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