Tucked away in a breeding enclosure, one of the smallest animals in the zoo has just quietly produced the newest generation of tiny offspring. Red-tailed Phascogales are Dasyurids, or carnivorous marsupials related to Tasmanian Devils. They are an endangered species found only in remnant bushland throughout the wheat-belt of Western Australia. The most recent assessment indicates the main threat to this species is habitat fragmentation, exacerbated by issues of salinity, changed fire regime and loss of corridors from road widening.1
Catch a glimpse of these tiny predators and you might think that they are ordinary house mice, but closer inspection hints at their fascinating story. The species is arboreal (tree dwelling), extremely agile and quite ferocious, tackling prey (such as house mice) almost as big as themselves. In an astonishing aspect of life history, male phascogales undergo semelparity – this means that as they approach their first birthday they reach sexual maturity and undergo a breeding season of such single minded purpose that they all die at the end of it, before even reaching one year of age!
Phascogales are a great example of Australia’s many cryptic species. Being small, nocturnal and shy, they live secret lives hidden from human view, and consequently few people have ever heard of them. So next time you go for a bush walk or go past a patch of remnant bushland, have a thought for the secret world of small creatures that may be hidden there.
One of the smallest animals in the zoo, they highlight some of the difficulties of species management. We were delighted to have a successful breeding season this year, with 20 offspring from three females. However this success presents its own problems. Because one female can have up to eight offspring, and we need to breed with several females to maximise genetic diversity, we can very soon end up with an over abundance. We sometimes joke that with any animal transaction to another zoo, we will include a bag of free phascogales! As males need to be kept individually, management is difficult. Stay tuned to hear how the story unfolds.....
1 (Short, Jeff, Hide, Andrew, and Stone, Megan (2011) Habitat requirements of the endangered red-tailed phascogale, Phascogale calura. Wildlife Research 38, 359–369. http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WR10220)
- Keeper Wendy Gleen
Taronga Zoo, Media Relations
(02) 9978 4606
Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Media Relations
(02) 6881 1400
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