The possum with an insatiable sweet tooth

By Angela Heathcote 29 November 2017
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Lapping up the sweet nectar of Australia’s juiciest plants at night, and then napping all throughout the day, Australia’s unique honey possums are living out our dreams.

WESTERN AUSTRALIA’S honey possums (Tarsipes rostratus) are the only non-flying mammal in the world to rely solely on nectar and pollen as a food source.

They can be found pigging out on the sweet, juicy nectar of south-west WA’s flora, gripping their sticky hands onto bottlebrushes and fruiting cones twice their size.

“Their snout is perfectly shaped to fit in between the bristles of these flora and they have a long sticky tongue that grabs hold of the nectar and pollen,” Kirsty Vogel, an expert on the honey possum, tells Australian Geographic.

Then, with a belly full of the sweet stuff, they go into to torpor, a type of light hibernation, and they’re impossible to disturb.

“You can pick them up and they’ll still be asleep. It’s just so cute” says Kirsty.

honey possum

(Image Credit:Bush Heritage Australia / Annette Ruzicka)

Why ‘honey possum’?

Honey possums don’t eat honey and they aren’t possums.

Kirsty says that they can be traced back to a small South American marsupial called Monito del Monte (Dromiciops gliroides), native to Chile.

“They are from different families but DNA evidence suggests this is the honey possums closest relative. The honey possum is the only member of the Tarsipedidae family so they’re incredibly unique.”

As for the ‘honey’ part, she says this probably just comes down to the animal’s insatiable appetite for sugar, among their favourites, banksia, hakea, eucalypt and melaleuca.

honey possum

(Image Credit: Kirsty Vogel)

The threat of climate change

Kirsty says that while the animal isn’t considered endangered, climate change may become problematic for the honey possum, which relies on the nectar and pollen of flora endemic to one particular corner of the world.  

“A lot of proposed climate change scenarios such as bushfires becoming for frequent and more intense will decimate a lot of the honey possum’s food sources and habitats in south-west WA.”

Revegetation of areas affected by bushfires or previously used for farmland has already had a positive effect on the honey possums’ survival.

“There was an area of re-vegetation on Yarraweyah, a property owned by Bill and Jane Thompson, and we did some trapping there and we found a honey possum.

“It just shows that the honey possums need these areas to be regenerated so that they can find their home again.

“That little honey possum that we found was small, but when we set her free onto the plants she just hung around and ate and ate and ate. It was really beautiful to see.”

honey possum

The honey possum discovered on Yarraweyah. (Image Credit: Kirsty Vogel)