Western Pygmy Possums
Imagine, you have dropped your bunch of keys somewhere and now you are bending down to pick it up. And there it is, a tiny, tiny little creature, almost as small as the nail of your thumb. That is how Snow White was found, correctly recognised as a Western Pygmy Possum baby and not mistaken for anything else.
It's not just hard to spot those three-gram babies; the adults are not particularly big either. The agile climbers are nocturnal and prefer to live in shrubby undergrowth - such as grevilleas, melaleucas, banksias or callistemon - of mallee heath lands and dry woodlands. They rarely appear in our urban backyards.
Pygmy Possums can be found pretty much along the entire south coast of Australia - the range of the Western Pygmy Possum (Cercartetus concinnus) stretches as far as the border between South Australia and Victoria where it overlaps with the Eastern Pygmy Possum (Cercartetus nanus).
The species look similar but can be distinguished by their size, their preferred habitat and by the colouring of their fur. The Western Pygmy Possum is slightly smaller than its eastern cousin. With an adult head and body length of 8 cm and almost the same length of tail, the Western Pygmies weigh around 15 grams. The fur of the western species shows a bit more red in their light brown to fawn fur than those over-east. Their belly fur is a shiny pure white, while the hair on the bellies of the eastern variety has only white tips.
Living rather close to the ground Western Pygmy Possums are easily caught by almost all kinds of predators. However, their reproductive rate has fortunately adapted to these losses. They can breed year-round producing two to three litters with four offspring in average. A female has six teats, so she can have up to six babies simultaneously.
They don't waste any time. Within days of giving birth the female pygmy can be pregnant again. While this new generation is slowly growing, she feeds the babies of the previous litter until they are weaned.
Pygmy possums are highly economical creatures anyway. They feed mainly on nectar, pollen, fruits and seeds, and feast occasionally on insects - inedible parts such as wings being separated with the tiny fingers of their fore feet.
As the quality of food sources changes throughout the year, they are able to rationalise their energy budget when needed. If there is enough food they eat and eat more than they need and store the surplus energy in their tail.
In addition, they are able to reduce their energy intake drastically at times when there is little or no food available. They can then be found curled up like a golf ball in their sleeping quarters, their skinny ears folded down to cover the eyes. 'Torpor' is the name for this sort of hibernation. In torpor Pygmies seem to weigh almost nothing and they have lowered their body temperature quite significantly. It can last for up to a fortnight.
Due to their fertility Western Pygmy Possums are not endangered, even though predation pressure is high. For this reason they have developed some extremely effective warning skills. They tilt their large ears around constantly in order to notice the faintest noise. Their eyes take up as much as ten percent of their face which is beneficial for a nocturnal lifestyle and they have relatively long and sensitive whiskers compared to other possum species.
Fairly new research confirms that they do contribute to the pollination of the plants they feed upon. This remained unknown, because they had always groomed themselves thoroughly and no pollen was to be found when being checked by the researchers.