Brushtail possums are a well-known archetype of Australian fauna and one of many species of possum that live here. They are members of the marsupial family, under the genus Trichosurus.
These animals are generally herbivorous, but they will occasionally eat insects, birds’ eggs and grubs. Brushtail possums are nocturnal, so they generally look for food between dusk and dawn.
Possums are territorial and urinate and excrete body oils to mark their territories. They are not always aggressive and will often just stare at each other with erect ears when defending their territories. If they feel trapped, however, they will attack to defend themselves.
They communicate with each other using a variety of methods: clicks, hisses, grunts, screeches, chatters, and coughs.
Brushtail possums are arboreals and spend most of their time in dense forests and wooded areas. However, some species have adapted to urban living, seeking out shelter in house roofs, garages, chimneys, and sheds. They prefer living by themselves, only seeking company during breeding periods, which can start as early as one year old for some brushtail possum species.
Brushtail possums are categorised into five major species:
- Common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)
- Northern brushtail possum (Trichosurus arnhemensis)
- Short-eared possum (Trichosurus caninus)
- Mountain brushtail possum (Trichosurus cunninghami)
- Coppery brushtail possum (Trichosurus johnstonii)
Common Brushtail Possums
These are the most abundant species of Australian possums, and they have adapted well to urban living so they are also the ones that most frequently come into contact with people.
This species can also be found in Tasmania and other offshore islands like Barrow Island and Kangaroo Island. They were also introduced to New Zealand in mid-1800s, where they are now widespread and considered a pest.
Appearance of Common Brushtail Possums
The common brushtail possums have bushy tails, with a naked patch on the underside, which they use to grip branches. They have sharp foreclaws and they have a clawless, opposable first toe on their hind foot that works like a human thumb and give them an even good grasp. Two of the toes, the second and the third, are fused and has a long, split claw, used for grooming.
The fur of common Australian brushtail possums is quite thick and woolly. The colour of the fur varies – brown, black, silver-grey, red, cream – and becomes lighter on the underparts. The tail colour can either be brown or black. Their ears are quite large and pointed and their muzzles are spotted with dark patches.
The male brushtail possums are larger than the females, and the males’ coat usually have reddish hue across the shoulders. Female brushtail possums can be easily recognised because of their distinctive, forward-opening pouch.
Most common colour: silver-grey
Head-body length: 32 – 58 cm
Tail length: 24 – 40 cm
Weight: 1.2 – 4.5 kg
Common Brushtail Possum Diet and Biology
Common brushtail possums are nocturnal and arboreal (live or spend most time on trees), although they may also be seen travelling along the ground.
Their diet generally consists of leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds, shoots, as well as small insects, birds’ eggs and young birds. Common Australian brushtail possums are solitary by nature, they communicate with each other using several calling methods, which include clicks, hisses, grunts, screeches, hisses, alarm chatter, and guttural coughs.
Common Brushtail Possum Breeding
Females start breeding when they reach a year old, while males by the end of their second year. They can breed any time of the year, particularly in northern Australia, but in other areas, the breeding usually peaks in spring and autumn. After a gestation period that can last 16 to 18 days, female brushtail possums usually give birth to a single young.
Newborns climb, unaided, into their mother’s pouch and stays there for four or five months more. Inside the pouch is a teat where the baby possums attach themselves for food. After five months, the young brushtail possum will ride their mothers’ back until they are seven to nine months old.
Common Brushtail Possum Habitat
Common brushtail possums live in rainforests, woodlands, pine plantations, dry eucalyptus forests, semiarid places, and even in urban parks and gardens. They are also found inhabiting treeless areas. During the day, they stay in their dens, which may be in a hollow of a tree, a log, dense undergrowth, animal burrow, cave, or even in dark spaces of houses like roof-space or basement space.
Common Brushtail Possum Lifespan
The average lifespan of a common brushtail possum in the wild is 13 years.
In some areas, common brushtail possums are considered pests as they cause damage to pine plantations and hinder the regeneration of eucalypt forest, fruit trees, and buildings. They may also carry diseases such as bovine tuberculosis.
In places like Kangaroo Island where this possum species is considered a pest and threat to other vulnerable wildlife, one can request for a removal permit.
Common brushtail possums have been commercially hunted for their furs. In fact, they were introduced to New Zealand because of this, but they grew so rapidly that they become a threat to local vegetation. The country has now been desperately trying to control their numbers.
Northern Brushtail Possums
This species of brushtail possums is closely related to the common brushtail species, with the geographic range being the most distinguishing feature between the two.
As its name suggests, northern brushtail possums are found in the northern territory of Australia, as well as in the north-most areas of western Australia. They can also be found on Barrow Island.
Appearance of Northern Brushtail Possums
The coat of northern brushtail possums varies in colour – grey, reddish or chocolate brown, or copper. Their fur is shorter and less dense compared to that of common brushtail possums. Their prehensile tails are covered with fur, with a hairless underside. The tails are also thinner and less hairy compare to that of the common species. Northern brushtail possums have long, oval ears.
Most common colour: grey
Head-body length: 35 – 55 cm
Tail length: 25 – 40 cm
Weight: female weighs 1.5 kg – 3.5 kg ; males weighs 2 kg – 4.5 kg
Northern Brushtail Possum Diet and Biology
Northern brushtail possums are nocturnal and typically live above ground. They eat a variety of foods, which include leaves, flowers, fruits, and occasionally, small birds.
Northern Brushtail Possum Breeding
Northern brushtail possums reach sexual maturity around age one, and females give birth to a single offspring. Gestation period lasts between 17 – 18 days, and pouch period lasts between four and five months. Babies are weaned between six and seven months.
If the baby dies during pouch period, the mother returns to estrus (becomes secual receptive again) in 10 days time.
Northern Brushtail Possum Habitat
They live in a variety of habitats, including forests, treeless areas with burrows and caves, wooded areas, and residential areas.
Northern Brushtail Possum Lifespan
The average lifespan of a common brushtail possum in the wild is between 11 and 13 years.
Short-eared Brushtail Possums
This possum species was once classified as mountain brushtail possums (Trichosurus cunninghami), which is its closest relative. In 2002, the species was re-classed and has been since known as the short-eared brushtail possums.
Short-eared brush tail possums are endemic to Australia, found on north of Sydney, southern Queensland, and around Newcastle in NSW.
Appearance of Short-eared Brushtail Possums
They are stocky in build, have short round ears, and strong claws. Their tails, which has black bushy fur, narrow toward the end and is bare underneath and at the tip.
The coat on their back is usually dark grey, while the belly and throat fur can come in a variety of colours, including pale grey, white, or cream, although a number of entirely black short-dated brushtail possums can be found in some areas.
Short-eared Brushtail Possum Diet and Biology
Short-eared brushtail possums forage in trees or on the ground during the night. They feed on leaves, flowers, fruits, fungi, lichen, and even tree bark.
Short-eared Brushtail Possum Breeding
Breeding starts around March to May and gestation period lasts for about 15 to 17 days, after which a single young is born. The pouch period lasts 5 to 6 months, and another 2 more months riding on the mother’s back before they are fully weaned.
Short-eared Brushtail Possum Habitat
They are usually found in sclerophyll forests, rain forests and other moist areas from sea level 1600 m. Occasionally, they can be found in vine thickets along rivers or in mangrove edges.
Short-eared Brushtail Possum Lifespan
They can live for up to 17 years in the wild.
Mountain Brushtail Possums
It was recently discovered that the mountain brushtail possums that occur in two different parts of Australia are distinct from each other. Hence, the previously known mountain brush tail possum found in the northern part of Australia, trichosurus caninus, was renamed short-eared brushtail possum. The other species, found in the southern part of Australia, retains the name mountain brushtail possum.
Appearance of Mountain Brushtail Possums
Mountain brushtail possums are generally darker and more robust than the common brushtail species. Their ears appear smaller and rounder compared to the pointed ears of the common brushtail species.
Males are larger and heavier than females and most have a reddish coat across their shoulders. The male mountain brushtail possums use scent glands near their chin, chest, and anus to mark their territories, but there’s no ‘staining’ of the chest, as is common with species excreting scent glands on the chest.
Most common colour: dark
Head-body length: 40 – 55 cm
Tail length: 34 – 42 cm
Weight: 2.5 kg – 4.5 kg
Mountain Brushtail Possum Diet and Biology
Mountain brush tail possums generally live in trees. Although they use their tail to grasp branches, it can’t support their full body weight. They stay asleep during the day in tree hollows, fallen logs, dead branches, and thick ferns. They feed at night on leavers, flowers, insects, and birds’ eggs.
They communicate via scent markings, hissing noises, and deep coughings.
Mountain Brushtail Possum Breeding
Breeding period is between March and May. Females can start breeding when they reach two years of age, but ideal age of breeding is at age three and above. After a 15 to 17 days gestation period, the young then spend between five to six months inside their mother’s pouch. Next, they spend about 2 – 5 months riding on the mother’s back before they are weaned.
Mountain Brushtail Possum Habitat
This species is mainly found at high altitude on the east coast of Australia. They solely reside in the damp rainforest of the area; they can’t be found in woodlands or open-grassed plains. They prefer to live in thicker and denser undergrowth.
Mountain Brushtail Possum Lifespan
Lifespan in the wild can be as long as 17 years or longer.
Land clearings threaten the habitat of mountain brushtail possums Road deaths and dog attacks, especially in urban areas, are also a growing concern for the species.
Coppery Brushtail Possums
This species is generally found in Koombooloomba and Kuranda, in the northeastern part of Queesnland, Australia. There’s not much information on this species as it was once considered as just a sub-species of the common brushtail possums.
Appearance of Coppery Brushtail Possum
This species got its name from the coppery, reddish fur that covers a large portion of their medium-sized bodies. Their underside is covered in a much lighter cream-colored fur.
Most common colour: Copper
Head-body length: female measures 40 – 47 cm ; male can reach 49 cm
Tail length: 30 cm – 38 cm in females ; average of 40 cm in males
Weight: 1.2 kg – 1.8 kg
Coppery Brushtail Possum Diet and Biology
Just like other Australian brushtail possums, this species are herbivores, but would feed on the occasional insect or birds’ eggs.
Coppery Brushtail Possum Breeding
Little is known regarding their breeding behaviour, but they are expected to be the same to those of common brushtail possums’.
Coppery brushtails are are likely to breed two times a year.
Coppery Brushtail Possum Habitat
Coppery brushtail possums mainly live in tall open forests and in rainforest edges.
Coppery Brushtail Possum Lifespan
The average lifespan of coppery brushtail possums are currently unknown but is said to be closely related to that of the common brushtails, which averages 13 years in the wild and 15.9 years in captivity.