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Global warming forces Wet Tropics possum species to flee their mountain homes
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Global warming forces Wet Tropics possum species to flee their mountain homes

The sleeve of a Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger, with the Herbert River ringtail possum logo.


Researchers and rangers look for possum species in danger of extinction in remote Queensland.

They are being driven from their mountain homes by climate change.

Among them is one of Queensland’s most recognisable animals — the Herbert River ringtail possum, the logo of the state’s Parks and Wildlife Service worn on the uniforms of its rangers.

Researchers are making shocking discoveries at 600 metres above sea-level, the edge of the possums natural range.

Alejandro de la Fuente, a James Cook University (JCU), PhD student, stated that “right now we just don’t have any; in some locations we haven’t seen one individual for a decade.”

“The possums are dying are not being replaced with newborns, which basically leads to a long-term decrease in the number of ringtails in that area.”

The sleeve of a Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger, with the Herbert River ringtail possum logo.
“Herbie” was adopted as the QPWS logo in 1976.(ABC Far North: Mark Rigby)

‘Islands within the landscape’

Stephen Williams, a JCU professor, has been researching and monitoring the impacts of climate change upon mountain ecosystems for over 20 years.

“As the summers heat up, it’s basically pushing.” [the possums]”They’ve disappeared from the lower elevations of the mountain because the heat’s getting too intense,” he said.

Researchers have joined forces to monitor the Herbert River ringtail and other species at high altitudes that are being affected by a warming climate.

Roger James, QPWS Tinaroo’s ranger, said that lemuroid possums and green ringtails possums faced similar dire circumstances to their distant cousins.

A slender possum with a dark coloured coat and pale rings around its eyes climbs a large tree trunk.
Global warming has particularly affected the lemuroid-ringtail possum population.(ABC Far North: Mark Rigby)

He said, “The problem with these mountain peaks is that they are like islands in a landscape.”

“When you are at the top of a mountain, there are no other mountain tops around. If you want to travel to another mountain peak, you must go down and cross the farmlands. The possums don’t do that.

“They are stuck on these islands at the mountain tops, and that is the critical thing.”

“Nowhere else to be”

Ben Solowiej, QPWS natural resources management ranger, said that rangers’ presence within Queensland’s national parks placed them in a valuable position for monitoring the state’s endangered species.

He said, “We have the capability to provide staff to conduct the surveys and provide logistical support.”

“In the past 18 month, taking out the rain season which would be approximately six months of that, I’ve managed to contribute more than 110 night survey nights, whereas it might have taken years in the past.”

A ranger and a university researcher use headlamps to spot possums while another ranger records details of the sighting.
Recorded information includes the time, location, and weather of each possum sighting.(ABC Far North: Mark Rigby)

Although the number of possums living at elevations above 1,000m above sea level is on the rise, there is no reason to celebrate.

Researchers fear that the possums may continue to disappear as the climate heats.

Mr de la Fuente stated that “after the mountain tops they have literally no other way up in elevation and it’s really hard to do conservation in an environment that’s already protected.”

The disappearance of well-protected wildlife

Teams monitoring the possums find that there are many other species in the Wet Tropics that are suffering a similar fate.

Mr James and his fellow Tinaroo rangers are witnessing the disappearances of mammals, birds and reptiles that normally inhabit mountain peaks.

“The golden bowerbird, an iconic bird species for the Wet Tropics, is being monitored because, if the effects of climate change are going to pan out as predicted, it’s likely to be one of the first endemic species to disappear off the top of the mountain,” Mr James said.

Three men stand at the rear of a ute tray talking and looking at maps.
Roger James, Alejandro de la Fuente, and Ben Solowiej discuss their plans for the night’s monitoring trip.(ABC Far North: Mark Rigby)

Professor Williams said that the disappearance in World Heritage-protected regions of endemic species was evidence of the effects of climate change.

“It is really critical right now, as we have already seen a decline of 50 percent in the total population for some species,” he stated.

“All these species that we would have thought to be completely safe, because they’re in a well protected, well-managed World Heritage Area are disappearing before our eyes.”


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