Not completely unrelated to the hissing creatures you may find lurking in your backyard, these adorable pygmy possums share a distinct family linage with that of the Virginian Opossum known to many urban and rural dwelling North Americans. Like the Virginian Opossum, the Western pygmy possum is characterized by its innate ability to adapt to multiple environments.
Pygmy possums, more specifically those native to Southern Australia, are the subject of a hopeful, yet bittersweet story set on the Yorke Peninsula. A dwindling five endemic species remain of originally 24 unique species; 19 are now extinct due to a morphing habitat and encroaching development. National Geographic grantee and ecologist Sophie “Topa” Petit investigates how flowering resources contribute to the possum’s evolutionary success.
Pygmy possums deal well with stress and can travel great distances when resources in one area become depleted. Topa’s team, including Honors student Damian Morrant and faithful volunteers, outfitted several possums with GPS trackers, following one ambitious possum for 5 km (approx. 3 miles) before it finally stopped. Not bad for a mammal as large as your thumb! The possum has also adapted its culinary pallet to include several sources of nutrients. No flowering plants? No problem. The pygmy possum will bite the branches of trees to extract the sap within.
Topa will continue her research in Southern Australia studying this mighty marsupial as she has since 2004. Understanding the Western pygmy possum may bring us closer to understanding why other species faced with drastic habitat overhauls either adapt or forfeit unwillingly to extinction.
National Geographic Weekend interview with Sophie Petit