I was coming home from work one night; driving slowly along our dirt road when I was thrilled to spot one of the rarer inhabitants of the Wombat Forest and surrounds – the Brush-tailed Phascogale.
These small mammals superficially resemble rats – but rats they most definitely are not! They are carnivorous marsupials and in the same family as Tasmanian Devils, quolls and the mouse-sized antechinus. Phascogales have a grey body, with large ears and eyes, and a distinctive jet black bottle brush shaped tail.
I knew that Brush-tailed Phascogales lived here in Porcupine Ridge as a few years ago I found one of their brush tails on the roadside – nipped off at the base, possibly by a Powerful Owl. Another night I saw one crossing Woolnoughs Rd. Recently my friend and neighbour Paula had photographed one on her night camera.
But last week’s sighting was special because I got a very good look at the creature! As I stopped, the phascogale sauntered across the road in front of the headlights so I could see how it moved, so different to a rat’s running – like the antechinus a kind of hopping along the ground. The tail was held high and unmistakable!
This species is classified as Threatened under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act as it has been hit hard by a whole host of factors including destruction of their habitat, loss of hollow bearing trees to shelter and nest in, and predation by cats and foxes. Too much planned burning also negatively affects them by removing the resources they need to survive.
They occupy very large home ranges (females 20–70 ha, males 100 ha) and require habitat with lots of branches, logs and leaf litter in which to find their food – tasty big spiders, centipedes, moths and even small animals such as skinks and young birds. They also eat pollen and nectar from Eucalypts and recently it has been discovered that they feed on Banksia nectar and pollen too.
The males are active now – searching for females so they can breed. Incredibly, after breeding season, all males in the population die, leaving the forest with only females and later in the year, young phascogales. This unusual breeding strategy also occurs in our local antechinus species – the Agile Antechinus.
Brush-tailed Phascogales are a flagship species for many conservation programs in the region, most of whom provide nest boxes for phascogales. Connecting Country and Macedon Ranges Shire Council have hundreds of nest boxes which are checked for occupancy by enthusiastic volunteers and program managers. Nest boxes for phascogales are also used by Sugar Gliders (now known as Krefft’s Gliders) so the nest box programs are providing much needed habitat.
Wombat Forestcare has conducted camera trap surveys throughout the Wombat Forest in an effort to assess the numbers and extent of this species, and the Caught on Camera project (with the Victorian National Parks Association) recorded the species in the Wombat Forest near Trentham for the first time since the 1970s! The population in the northern block of the Wombat – Hepburn Regional Park is well known and has been monitored since 2000 by a team led by Andy Arnold at Federation University.
Tanya Loos is a local naturalist, author and environmental consultant who loves to work in the environmental not-for-profit sector. She is the author of “Daylesford Nature Diary” available from her website or from Paradise Books in Vincent Street, Daylesford.
Have you got any nature questions for Tanya? Send them in!