Mountain pygmy possum Q&A with Chris Humfrey

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Mountain pygmy possum. Photo: Chris Humfrey

Chris Humfrey is a zoologist who’s passionate about native Australian animals. He’s the founder of Wild Action, a reptile and animal incursion zoo in Victoria, where him and his team care for over 2,000 different species of animals, many of whom are critically endangered in the wild.

We sat down with Chris to learn all about the unique mountain pygmy possum (or MPP for short). He tells us why he thinks the MPP is one of Australia’s most endearing marsupials and why it’s so important to keep them protected!

RSPCA NSW: What made you decide to dedicate your life to the conservation of Australian wildlife?

Chris: I have always been fascinated by wildlife, and as a kid was always puzzled by the fact that not everyone saw animals as amazing like I did. I grew up in the outer-eastern suburbs of Melbourne and I saw firsthand how suburbia took over the habitat of native Australian animals. To my horror, the wild places behind my family home where I played and looked for creatures was rapidly bulldozed before my eyes… and replaced with houses.

From my early primary school days, it was my mission to engage and fascinate people on the importance of protecting all things wild! Every animal is important, every animal is connected, and every creature has a job to do. You can’t just save the fluffy, cute and charismatic. The scary and sometimes disgusting animals are just as important to look after as well.

R: What does the mountain pygmy possum look like and where do they live?

C: You could be excused for thinking that the mountain pygmy possum looks a little like a large mouse. However, when you look closely at its hands, its curly-wurly prehensile tail (which it uses like a monkey’s tail for grasping), its large nocturnal eyes and large twitching ears, you have one of Australia’s most endearing and critically endangered pouched marsupials. Found in Australia’s inhospitable snow-capped mountains, this small possum species only has a range of less than 10 square kilometres in New South Wales and Victoria’s isolated alpine peaks. 

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MPP’s prehensile tail. Photo: Chris Humfrey

R: What do you think is the most interesting fact about the mountain pygmy possum?

C: The MPP is Australia’s only marsupial that truly hibernates. Incredibly, it can hibernate up to seven months under the snow! It has a gestation period of only 15 days, which is incredibly quick when you compare it to humans who spend 40 weeks inside our mother’s tummy before we are born! There are thought to be less than 2,000 MPPs left in the wild.

I currently care for 45 individual MPPs and we have baby MPP joeys as I type! Wild Action has one of the largest captive populations in the world. We are so proud to successfully breed them.

R: The mountain pygmy possum is critically endangered in Australia, which means it’s at risk of becoming completely extinct in the wild. What is threatening the population of this adorable animal?

C: Sadly, MPPs are adversely affected by climate change and are ironically freezing to death as the planet heats up. MPPs use the snow to insulate themselves from the cold in their winter hibernation. When there is no snow, they expend too much energy to try and keep warm, and many MPPs perish! If that is not bad enough, humans are directly impacting on their remaining habitat with ski resorts and human traffic.

MPPs have a very small restricted range. The 2019-2020 summer bushfires caused catastrophic damage throughout their home. Scientists are still trying to understand the negative impact on MPPs.

Their favourite food is the bogong moth, which has sadly been decimated by droughts in north-western New South Wales. In 2019-2020, moth numbers were extremely low when they migrated to the alps where the possums live. Without this protein rich food source, the MPP can’t get fat enough to survive long winters!

Remaining mountain pygmy possums also have to contend with introduced predators such as feral cats and the European red fox. So many threats and so much pressure for one of Australia’s most incredible alpine marsupial survivors! 

R: What can we do to help the mountain pygmy possum? 

C: I think we all need to change our behaviour and the way we live. We need to be more caring and understanding of all living creatures. It’s not just our planet, we share it with so many other different species.

Thinking locally is the best way to be proactive, and to help out all animals and heal our planet. Being a responsible pet owner is a great start. Always walk your dog on a lead and keep your cat enclosed in a cat run or in your home day and night. Cats are such devastating predators on our native wildlife. Recycle your waste and reduce energy used in your home. You could also create habitat in your own back garden for displaced native wildlife without a home.

Chris with Dingoes by Taasha Humfrey
Chris Humfrey. Photo: Taasha Humfrey

For more information about Chris Humfrey’s Wild Action, please head here. You can also pick up a copy of Australia’s Deadly Animals Bingo here.