The possum that hugs

By Tim Low 11 April 2016
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Long bear-hugs, rotating sentinels and mothers forming bridges are just some of the unique behaviours of Australia’s elusive rock ringtail possum.

A LOT OF HUGGING is happening on cliffs in tropical Australia. The rock ringtail possums that live up that way are the world’s most affectionate marsupials, giving their young many cuddles.

One hot night in Kakadu I met up with these doting Australians. With my spotlight I saw two sets of eyes high on a cliff looking at me. They then walked around a ledge, and when the female emerged again I could see a pair of smaller eyes shining just above her head – her baby was riding on top.

When a family is out feeding on foliage the mother offers an unusual service. She forms a bridge by stretching between branches and freezing, so her young one can crawl over her to reach another sector of a tree.

Rocky ringtail possum

“Rock ringtails should be famous, but because they are shy and dwell in remote places, most Australians have never heard of them.” (Image: Michael J Barritt)

These ringtails are one of only a few marsupials to live in tight family groups. When they wander along cliffs and branches they proceed single file, the youngster – when it is old enough to walk – positioned between its parents.

These possums have been seen in parties of up to nine. One adult acts as a sentinel while others feed, a role in which they take turns. A sentinel whacks its tail against a rock or branch to warn of danger.

Rock ringtails are altogether unique. No other marsupial in Australia or the Americas has families that proceed in tight formations, mothers forming bridges, fathers giving long bear-hugs, or groups with rotating sentinels. Behaviours like these are more often associated with primates.

Rock ringtails should be famous but because they are shy and dwell in remote places, most Australians have never heard of them. The sandstone massifs they live among have deep recesses to which the possums retreat, ensuring they are seldom observed for long. The musky scent marks they leave on rock to signal their territories are easier to find than the possums themselves.  

The social complexity they display probably has to do with their special habitat. But Australia has another possum bound to that landscape, the scaly-tailed possum or wyulda, found on Kimberley outcrops, with none of the same special habits.

We may ask why one and not the other is socially exceptional. The quest to understand nature often generates more questions than answers, and that is ultimately part of its appeal, the certainty that there will always be mysteries to wonder about.

Tim Low is the author of the award-winning book Where Song Began. Follow him on Twitter @TimLow5.