Denouncing all fears that its days were numbered, scientist have found a pygmy possum on Kangaroo Island, off the mainland of South Australia, first time since the bushfires of 2019-2020 destroyed most of their natural habitat.
When the Australian bushfires broke out and prolonged till May 2020, little did we know that it was merely the start of one of the most catastrophic years to society since the Spanish Influenza outbreak in 1918. On finally burning out, the true extent of devastation was shocking. Over 46,050,750 acres of bushland had been razed to the ground, with locals referring to the disaster as Black Summer. It was estimated that over one billion animals were killed by the bushfires, with numerous protected species suffering from severely impacted populations, and loss of habitat.
Among the affected areas was Kangaroo Island, Australia’s third largest island which is also known as the country’s Galapagos Island. At least half of the island was burnt between the months of December and January. This had a severe ecological impact as large parts of the island are designated protected areas and habitats for the various species of wildlife unique to the country, including koalas, kangaroos, Kangaroo Island Dunnarts, southern brown bandicoots and pygmy possums, to name a few. Consequently, ecologists feared that the fire may have permanently ruined the habitats of the animals, with some species, such as the pygmy possums feared to have been devastated completely…or have they?
Despite nearly 88% of their predicted range being burned down by the fire, these tiny marsupials gave true meaning to the phrase ‘never say die’ when one was discovered on the island on 7th of December. This discovery was significant, according to ecologists, serving as the first on record confirmation of the species survival post-fire.
Weighing less than 10 grams (that’s lighter than an AAA battery folks!), the pygmy possum is found in Tasmania, occasionally mainland South Australia and Victoria, as well as Kangaroo Island. Adorably small, their size and limited habitat range result in it being difficult to study them. While the discovery of the pygmy possum is a good sign of their survival post bushfires, they now have a different concern- namely, surviving predators such as feral cats. Fauna ecologist Pat Hudgens, in a conversation with Guardian Australia remarked that pygmy possums “…were highly compromised as a species” and stated that they would still be exposed to natural and introduced predators.
While Black Summer was an ecological tragedy of unmatched proportions, ecologists are optimistic that the pygmy possum would be able to survive on Kangaroo Island, if some measures were taken focusing on their conservation. A survey on roughly 20 sites by Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife revealed the return of other species such as southern brown bandicoots, native bush rats, brush-tailed possums, tammar wallabies and the more common western pygmy possums.
It is heartening to see that, with time, life finds a way as the bushland regenerates and re-establishes itself once more.