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 – the Dasyuridae. Phascogales have a grey body, with large ears and eyes, and a distinctive black bottlebrush shaped tail.
I knew that Brush-tailed Phascogales lived here in Porcupine Ridge as a few years ago I found one of their brushy 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 captured them on her night camera.
Four years ago I saw one wandering around at Tipperary Springs, Hepburn Regional Park – in the day! I even managed to snap a pic on my phone. You can just make out his fluffy tail.
Last month’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 an antechinus, a hopping along the ground. The tail was held high and unmistakeable!
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.
Brush-tailed Phascogales occupy very large home ranges (female 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. The 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 another 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 traps surveys throughout the Wombat Forest in an effort to asses the numbers and extent of this species, and their Caught on Camera project (with the VNPA) recorded the species in the Wombat Forest near Trentham for the first time since the seventies! The population in the northern block of the Wombat – Hepburn Regional Park is well known and monitored since 2000 by a team led by Andy Arnold, Federation University.
We don’t know how many Brush-tailed Phascogales live in and around the Wombat Forest. The 2021 storms provided patches of habitat for this species, as large logs and fallen branches would be quickly colonised by insects and invertebrates. The logs and branches also provide structural habitat, allowing the phascogales to nest and forage safely, protected from predators such as foxes and cats.
The VicForests logging operations will no doubt be removing vital habitat, and impacting the species greatly as they are at their most vulnerable in breeding season as males run about the forest, and in a few months when females gather in maternity dens to have their litters. The bulldozed log landings and trails through the forest to get the logs will favour foxes, cats, deer and pigs as these animals capitalise on greater access to habitat and ease of travel through the forest.
The latest issue of Wombat Forestcare Newsletter has an excellent summary of the impact of the logging operations see the June 2022 issue here.
If you haven’t had a chance to call your local MP, or even Vicforests – this page from the VNPA has some handy numbers.