This time last year, huge bushfires swept across Australia, burning more than 17 million hectares, destroying thousands of homes, and killing 33 people between September 2019 and late February 2020. By early January, officials feared that 1 billion animals had died in the blazes, a number that looks more like 3 billion today. The devastation is hard to overstate, but now, the Guardian reports, a small bright spot has emerged in the shape of a teeny, tiny marsupial.
Last week, ecologists discovered one (1) little pygmy possum — the smallest possum there is — on Kangaroo Island. As fauna ecologist Pat Hodgens, of Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, told the Guardian, it is “the first documented record of the species surviving post-fire.”
Here is an actual image of the specimen:
According to Hodgens, the fires destroyed “about 88 percent of [the possum’s] predicted range,” with roughly half of Kangaroo Island burned between December and January. Although it seemed “pretty obvious” to Hodgens that “the population would have been pretty severely impacted,” the full extent of that impact is hard to gauge. Little pygmy possums are reportedly difficult to study at the best of times, due to being very, very small: They only grow to be about seven centimeters, max, and are nocturnal, presumably spending their days snoozing in round nests they build in tree hollows or “underneath mounds of grass,” per Museum Victoria. The emergence of this single miniature beacon, with its basically body-length whiskers and its mousy round ears, is heartening. But now, Hodgens warned, the possum and its associates are “at their most vulnerable — as the bushland regenerates they’re still very exposed to natural and introduced predators,” like feral cats.
In addition to the prized munchkin, Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife also found a handful of other species, including southern brown bandicoots, native bush rats, brush-tailed possums, tammar wallabies, a Bribons toadlet (!), and western pygmy possums, which are larger than little pygmy possums but only just. Hodgens told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the ecologists are trying “to do everything we can to protect them to ensure that they hang around during this pretty critical time.”
Well, yes, clearly the teeny possum must be protected at all costs. We thank Hodgens and the whole team for their service.