Specially constructed ‘tunnels of love’ beneath Victoria’s Great Alpine Road are improving genetic diversity in critically endangered mountain pygmy possums by enabling them to move safely between sites.

Once thought to be extinct, the tiny possums weigh between 35 and 80 grams, and are the only mammal entirely restricted to the alpine and subalpine regions of south-eastern Australia.

They hibernate for up to seven months in winter before emerging in spring to mate and are commonly found close to the ground, hunting in boulder fields and rocky scree near popular ski resorts.

But the mountain pygmy possum is under serious threat from climate change with a reduction in winter snow cover severely impacting their ability to breed and survive. It also is impacting the availability of its major food source, the Bogong moth.

Loss of habitat due to the development of ski resorts and from predators such as foxes and feral cats pose further risks and today there are only three known populations – at Mount Higginbotham and Mount Buller in Victoria, and Mount Kosciuszko in NSW – with fewer than 2,600 adults in total living in a range less than 10 square kilometres.

Efforts to save the species are being supported by a $200,000 grant through the Victorian Government’s Biodiversity On-Ground Action Icon Species Grants program, which funds targeted actions designed to protect and conserve Victoria’s threatened species.

The funding will address fragmentation of the mountain pygmy possum habitat and support work to develop and implement a plan to help the animals move safely between sites on Mount Buller.

An ongoing captive breeding program, annual monitoring and predator control are helping to maintain the mountain pygmy possum population. Research shows that genetic diversity results in more robust animals when the possums can move safely between sites and declining gene variation put the smaller population at great risk.

A similar project has proven effective at Mount Hotham, where two mountain pygmy-possum populations became separated by the Great Alpine Road. In 2018, construction was completed on the ‘tunnel of love’, which gave the possums safe passage beneath the road.

Government agencies also work closely with ski resorts in the Alpine National Park on weed control, revegetation, habitat protection and predator control. They are creating a boulder field to emulate habitat mountain pygmy possum habitat at Mount Buller.

It’s one of the ways we are working to protect biodiversity because every species matters.

To find out more about Biodiversity 2037 visit: https://www.environment.vic.gov.au/biodiversity/biodiversity-plan

Page last updated: 27/07/20