Photographer captures rare, close-up image of elusive scaly-tailed possum

By Angela Heathcote June 29, 2020
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Photographer Matt Clancy was lucky enough to get up close and personal with the typically shy, scaly-tailed possum.

AN IMAGE OF the elusive scaly-tailed possum, found only in remote parts of the Kimberley, Northern Territory, has been shortlisted in the Animal Portrait category of the 2020 Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year competition. 

Photographer Matt Clancy, whose subjects are typically reptiles and amphibians, had travelled to the Kimberley to photograph the similarly elusive rough-scaled python in the wild. 

“I was hiking along the base of a rocky escarpment after dark with the hope of getting lucky and spotting a python sitting in ambush position,” Matt says. “What I hadn’t considered was stumbling across something possibly more elusive than the python itself.”

After a few hours of searching for the python with no luck, Matt decided to position himself higher on the escarpment, climbing up a large boulder and wedging himself among vine thicket.  

“I thought if I positioned myself higher… maybe I’d be able to spot a snake in the trees. That’s when I turned and realised I was face to face with an animal I never expected to see. One of Australia’s most secretive and unique marsupials, a scaly-tailed possum.”

Australia's possums and gliders Related: A guide to Australia’s possums and gliders

The scaly-tailed possum, defined by its unusual tail that gives it a more robust grip on trees, was thought to be extinct from the Kimberley until 2012, when Monash University zoologist Sean Doody, who was part of a cane toad research group, stumbled upon the animal. 

“I was stunned, I’m familiar with the mammal fauna of northern Australia, and knew that there were no brushtail possums with bare tails,” Sean said following the discovery.

“This left either the scaly-tailed possum or the rock ringtail, and the amount of hair on the base of the tail, easily seen in the photos, confirmed it was the scaly-tailed possum.”

Despite its rediscovery, little is still known about the species. Matt’s photograph suggests the possum may not be as shy as we thought. 

“This particular scaly-tailed possum was rather curious, which made for a surprisingly easy subject, although it didn’t hang around for long,” Matt says. “After a few quick photos, off it went back up the tree and into the adjacent escarpment.”

Lucily for Matt, he already had a camera in hand. “I had a macro set-up that I normally use to photograph larger snakes, lizards and frogs but it knew it would work perfectly in this situation too, as the possum was the perfect distance between myself and the lens. 

“I quickly adjusted the settings, looked through the viewfinder, held up my left arm so the external flash was positioned in-front, slightly above and to the left of the subject, and released the shutter.”
You can see the other shortlisted images from the Animal Portrait category here:

Related: AG Nature Photographer of the Year 2020: Animal portrait shortlist