Possum personality key to survival

By Georgie Meredith May 16, 2016
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Traits that help possums thrive in captivity may be detrimental in the wild.

IN ONE OF the first behavioural studies to use wild animals, researchers have found that traits that help brushtail possums thrive in captivity, such as confidence or a lack of fearfulness, can be disastrous in a wild environment.

Researchers from Murdoch University, Western Australia, closely monitored the behaviour of possums in captivity, before observing them in the wild for five months.

“We were interested in seeing whether behavioural traits could be used as a predictor for survival success,” said Professor Trish Fleming, supervisor of the research.

“There were clear links between behaviours seen in captivity and the chance of survival after release,” Trish said, who added that animals that had been identified as fearful in captivity had a much a greater rate of survival in the wild.

brush-tailed possums

More fearful brushtail possums did better in the wild than in captivity. (Image: Karen Olkowski)

“They did not gain as much weight as the bolder animals, who headed out further to explore and forage for food, but more fearful individuals were more likely to survive until the end of the study,” she said.

Researchers worked with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy to move a group of brushtail possums from the feral-proof-fenced Karakamia Sanctuary to the partially-fenced Paruna Reserve in WA.

“Translocating fauna to new reserves is a widely used method to protect vulnerable species, and it is important to find ways to keep these animals alive,” Trish said.

The research has sparked a series of studies on the behavioural traits of translocated animals, aiming to note the patterns of different species.

“If we can predict the animals who are most likely to survive translocation, we can make a big improvement to survival rates in conservation,” Trish said.

“Different species will be advantaged by different traits but we are hoping to be able to build a large enough data set to extrapolate to other species,” she added.