The lively brushtail possum is one of Australia's most familiar marsupials. They are our most common possum species and largest arboreal (tree-dwelling) marsupial herbivore (plant-eater).
It is the size of a domestic cat with a pointed face, long oval ears, pink nose and bushy black tail. The Tasmanian brushtail has 3 main colour variations: silver grey, black and gold. The very dark possums inhabit denser, wetter forests than the grey. Pure golden possums are the result of a genetic mutation and most do not survive long in the wild because they are conspicuous to predators.
Their fur is prized for its thickness and warmth and there is a small possum skin industry in Tasmania. The Tasmanian brushtail is the same species as the Australian mainland form but has several characteristic differences such as larger size and longer, thicker coat.
Distribution and habitat
Brushtails are widespread throughout Tasmania and are highly adaptable to a wide range of natural and human environments. Their natural and preferred habitat is forest, where they nest in tree hollows. They will also cohabit with humans in cities and towns where they seek shelter, warmth and protection in the dark recesses of buildings. A favoured spot is between the ceiling and the roof and this can be a problem to some people. They can damage crops and gardens because they are partial to exotic plants, pasture grasses and vegetables as well as native plants.
Brushtail possums are herbivores or plant-eaters. In the bush they feed mainly on leaves of trees and shrubs, but they also enjoy succulent herbs, grasses, and garden plants. Meat or fat may occasionally be scavenged.
Social life and behaviour
Brushtail possums lead a largely solitary life. However in areas where numbers are high and shelter is in short supply several may share sleeping places. Home ranges vary from 1 to 15 hectares. They communicate by sound and scent. Those ferocious sounding screeches and gutteral growls are used often, particularly in the breeding season, to ward off intruding possums near the nest or home range.
Brushtails rub secretions from glands under their chin; on the chest and near the anus to mark home ranges and define occupancy of a homesite. If a homesite is vacant or undefended because the occupant has died or been removed then another brushtail will claim it!
Studies of the a behaviour of brushtail possums showed that about 16% of their time is spent feeding, 30% travelling 44% immobile and 10% grooming.
The brushtail possum is a nocturnal marsupial spending the daytime asleep in its nest and feeding at night. They are a tree-living or arboreal animal and so are well adapted for climbing with their sharp claws; a hand-like back foot for grasping and a strong flexible (prehensile) tail for curling around branches. Brushtails also spend some time on the ground searching for food.
In Tasmania, the main breeding time is autumn. Most females breed annually after their first year. A single young is born 17–18 days after mating and spends 4–5 months in the pouch, attached to one of two teats. A further 1–2 months are spent suckling and riding on the mothers back until fully weaned. You will see this from September to November. As with macropods, milk composition is known to change throughout the course of lactation.
Like many of our native animals, mortality is high once the young brushtail possums leave the pouch to establish their own home range. The majority of brushtails killed on our roads are young males.
Their main predators are owls and Tasmanian devils, but if lucky a possum can live to 11 years old!