• Only about six inches long, not including the tail, and weighing about a quarter of a pound, the Leadbeater’s possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) may be tiny, but it is fast and feisty. It lives in colonies of two to ten possums in the acacia and eucalyptus forests in Australia’s central Victoria.

    The possum is named for John Leadbeater, the taxidermist who preserved the first specimens of this little animal in the mid-1800s. For 50 years the possums seemed to have disappeared, and people thought they were extinct. Then in 1961, a naturalist rediscovered a colony. Now, this large-eyed, large-eared marsupial is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), mainly because of habitat loss.

    Leadbeater’s possums depend on forests that have trees of various ages, including younger trees, good for foraging, and mature trees—usually more than 100 years old—with hollows for nesting.

    The nocturnal Leadbeater’s possums spend the day protected in their dens in the tree hollows. At night, they move through the forest, jumping from tree to tree. To do this, it’s also important their habitat have either a dense middlestory or canopy.

    The forest trees also provide the possums’ main meal—sugary sap, gum, and honeydew. For protein, they eat a variety of arthropods from these forests, such as spiders, tree crickets, beetles, and moths. 

    Logging for woodchips used in paper production is destroying the Leadbeater’s possum habitat. Disease, drought, collapsing old habitat trees and bushfires threaten the species as well. In 2009, the Black Saturday bushfires, Australia’s most devastating bushfires in history, destroyed 45 percent of the possum’s prime habitat.

    Efforts to regulate logging and establish protected forests are underway in order to try to prevent Leadbeater’s possums from extinction.

    1. Why is it so challenging to help the Leadbeater’s possum increase its population?

      This species is endemic to a small area of a particular forest in Australia, meaning it is only found in this place in the wild. When this forest is subjected to wildfires and logging, the possum’s habitat becomes smaller, accommodating fewer possums.

    2. What are the possibilities for helping to develop habitats for the Leadbeater’s possum?

      Protecting land is sometimes not enough if a species requires hollows in 100-year-old trees in which to build nests. In some cases, an alternative to the older trees is the placement of nest boxes in forests to simulate the hollows. For the Leadbeater’s possum, efforts to do this have met with mixed results—some successful and some not. Scientists are finding that protection of the forest habitat is critical for this possum, but having enough natural homes in the trees creates another challenge.

    3. How is this marsupial different than its close relative, the sugar glider?

      Protecting land is sometimes not enough if a species requires hollows in 100-year-old trees in which to build nests. In some cases, an alternative to the older trees is the placement of nest boxes in forests to simulate the hollows. For the Leadbeater’s possum, efforts to do this have met with mixed results—some successful and some not. Scientists are finding that protection of the forest habitat is critical for this possum, but having enough natural homes in the trees creates another challenge.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    acacia Noun

    tree or shrub that is often thorny.

    arthropod Noun

    invertebrate animal with a segmented body, exoskeleton, and jointed appendages.

    Black Saturday bushfires Plural Noun

    (February 7, 2009) extensive series of wildfires that occurred in the state of Victoria, Australia, killing more than 150 people and injuring 500.

    canopy Noun

    one of the top layers of a forest, formed by the thick leaves of very tall trees.

    colony Noun

    group of one species of organism living close together.

    endangered species Noun

    organism threatened with extinction.

    Encyclopedic Entry: endangered species
    eucalyptus Noun

    tree native to Oceania.

    extinction Noun

    process of complete disappearance of a species from Earth.

    logging Noun

    industry engaged in cutting down trees and moving the wood to sawmills.

    marsupial Noun

    mammal that carries its young in a pouch on the mother's body.

    middlestory Noun

    ecosystem located above the understory of a rain forest, where trees touch but do not overlap.

    nocturnal Adjective

    active at night.

    specimen Noun

    individual organism that is a typical example of its classification.

    taxidermy Noun

    art and process of preparing and preserving the skins of animals, and stuffing and mounting them in lifelike form.