Breeding success good news for pygmy possum

By AAP with AG Staff 24 May 2011
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Scientists have successfully bred a healthy mountain pygmy possum from two genetic groups.

A DWINDLING BREED OF mountain pygmy possums threatened by ski resort developments and climate change has been given new hope after a successful breeding program in the wild.

In an Australian first, scientists have bred two genetically different populations of the marsupial by temporarily relocating males from Mt Hotham into female territory at Mt Buller in Victoria’s Alpine country. The successful experiment could hold wider implications for other isolated threatened species which could be impacted by climate change.

Mountain pygmy possums (Burramys parvus) are found in only three locations in Australia: Mt Hotham and Mt Buller in Victoria, and Mt Kosciuszko in NSW.

Inbreeding bottleneck

The Mt Buller population numbered about 300 in 1996 but had decreased to just 20 or 30 animals, Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) scientist Ian Mansergh says. The genetic diversity has declined as the marsupial’s numbers have fallen with the loss of habitat due to encroaching ski resort developments.

“They were becoming inbred,” Ian says.

With genetic variations detected at an all-time low last October, a decision was made to take drastic action. A team of scientists and wildlife experts from the DSE, University of Melbourne and Healesville Sanctuary were all involved in the delicate operation and in January discovered the fruits of their efforts.

One male was detected and found, through genetic hair testing, to be a result of a Mt Hotham-Mt Buller coupling.

“The birth of Lil Lou, our Hotham/Buller male, has shown that it can successfully be done in the wild, which opens up a whole new world of opportunities to save this population from extinction,” Ian says.

Increasing survival chances

As the possums are often born in litters of four, it is possible more siblings exist. Ian says this would inject genetic diversity back into the population and strengthen the possum’s chance of survival. But the experiment also has wider implications for other species.

“There will be a lot of isolated populations of threatened species suffering inbreeding problems that will be exacerbated by climate change,” he says. “We may be able to strengthen some of those rare and threatened populations once we know their genetics.”

The aim was to boost the Mt Buller population of mountain pygmy possums back to 1996 levels in the next 10 years.

VIDEO: Breeding the mountain pygmy possum


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