Distoechurus pennatusfeathertail possum

Last updated:

Geographic Range

Feathertail possums can be found in suitable forested habitats, including disturbed forests, throughout New Guinea. (Flannery, 1995)

Habitat

Feathertail possums are found in areas of disturbed secondary forest, rainforest, scrub forest, and gardens. They also are found in highland rainforest and lower moss forests at altitudes of up to 1,900 meters. (Nowak, 1991)

  • Range elevation
    1,900 (high) m
    ft

Physical Description

The head and body length is 100 to 120mm and the tail length is 123 to 55mm. Adult males weigh about 53 grams, and adult females weigh about 50 grams. Body coloration is dull buff, light brown, to slightly gray in color. The head is streaked with black and white bands that extend from the muzzle to the top of the head. There is a conspicuous black patch just below each ear. The basal part of the tail is well furred, and the remainder is nearly naked. A fringe of stiff hairs outlines the tail in a feather-like pattern hence the name feather-tailed possum. The coat is a soft, thick texture. The claws are sharp and curved and the terminal pads of the digits are not expanded. The eyes are large and the ears are small and naked. The tip of the tail is prehensile. Females have one medially placed teat, and a pouch that opens anteriorly. (Flannery, 1995; Nowak, 1991; Woolley and Allison, 1982)

Acrobatids differ from other possums in having six pads on their feet instead of five (an adaptation to enhance grip when climbing) and a tail with rows of long stiff hairs along each side, forming a feather-like structure. This is thought of being an adaptation to gliding. Distoechurus pennatus does not have a membrane and cannot glide. (Flannery, 1995; Nowak, 1991; Woolley and Allison, 1982)

The tongue is 21 mm long. The dorsal surface is covered with a mat of backwardly pointing papillae that is thought to be used as to tool to retrieve nectar and pollen from flowers. (Nowak, 1991)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • Range mass
    50 to 53 g
    1.76 to 1.87 oz
  • Range length
    100 to 120 mm
    3.94 to 4.72 in

Reproduction

Mating systems in feathertail possums are not well understood. Their close relative, Acrobates pygmaeus, is polygynous. (Springer and et al, 1989; Ward, 1998)

Reproductive research is lacking for feathertail possums but the related species, Acrobates pygmaeus, reaches sexual maturity at 8 months to one year of age and has two litters per year. Litter size is one or two young and is determined by a number of factors, latitude, altitude, ovulation rate, and the number of teats. They nest in tree holes and females are probably polygynous. Breeding can happen at any time of year in the tropics but births have a seasonal peak in spring. (Springer and et al, 1989; Ward, 1998; Woolley and Allison, 1982)

  • Breeding interval
    Feathertail possums can have up to 2 litters per year.
  • Breeding season
    There is a seasonal peak of births in spring.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 2
  • Average number of offspring
    1
    AnAge

Like other marsupials, feathertail possums gestate and nurse their young until they are weaned. There is little information on other forms of parental investment in feathertail possums. (Low, 1978; Russell, 1982)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Little is known about the lifespan of feathertail possums. In captivity one lived to 1.5 years. Because they are small possums, it is suggested that they have relatively short generation times. (Collins, 1973; Woolley and Allison, 1982)

Behavior

Feathertail possums are nocturnal and highly arboreal. These possums are solitary most of the year outside of the breeding season, when they associate briefly with a mate and their offspring.

Home Range

Home range size in feathertail possums is unknown.

Communication and Perception

Not much in known about communication in feathertail possums. In general, possums communicate though vocalizations and urine marking. (Perrott, et al., 2000)

Food Habits

Feathertail possums specialize in high-energy, high-protein foods such as nectar, pollen, and insects. They also feed on soft fruits or exudates such as gums. Most feeding occurs at night, although nursing mothers are sometimes forced to forage during the day to meet the energy demands of lactation. Feathertail possums have a hindgut that is about 10 cm in length and a small intestine of 25 cm long. (Flannery, 1995; Hume, 1999)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit
  • nectar
  • pollen
  • flowers
  • sap or other plant fluids

Predation

Feathertail possums are most vulnerable to predators when they are on the ground. The primary terrestrial predators of small possums in Australia are foxes. They may also be preyed on by arboreal snakes and owls. (Cowan, 2001; Cowan, 2001)

Ecosystem Roles

Feathertail possums are pollinators through their nectar-feeding. They may also disperse seeds when they eat fruits. (Nowak, 1991)

The number of known bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases infecting possums are minimal but researchers are spending time investigating the affects of Leptospira interrogans, a bacterium and Parastrongyloides trichosuri, a nematode, as potential vectors for biological control.

A disease found in possums only is "Wobbly Possum Disease" (WPD). This disease is characterized by docility, incoordination, loss of balance, and wasting. It also has detrimental affects in body tissue and the brain. WPD can be efficiently transmitted by close contact. Many joeys in direct contact with infected possums contract WPD. Infection may be spread in the wild by several mechanisms, including aggressive encounters in which blood is exchanged, contamination of wounds with urine, ingestion of contaminated food, transfer of mites during den-sharing, and other social encounters. WPD has potential as a biological control agent for possums on the basis that it is readily transmitted between individuals in close contact. (Cowan, 2001; Perrott, et al., 2000)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
  • pollinates
Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Wobbly Possum Disease
  • Bovine Tb

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The feather-tail possum is an active part of New Guinea’s indigenous people diet. They are hunted at night in the months of June, July, and August.

The Wola people of New Guinea's Highlands use the prized tails of posssums such as the Feather-tailed to create elaborate headress for cerimonies. (Sillitoe, 1988; )

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Feathertail possums can be considered pests when active in urban settings. Control methods like poisons and toxins are sometimes used to reduce problem possums. An emerging problem with these eradication methods is that the materials are being sent throughout the food web affecting many species who will prey upon a possum carcass. More research needs to be done on better methods of control, such as fertility control, traps, and behavior changes. Ferrets are becoming a problem because they are carriers of Bovine Tb which can be transmitted to possums. The transmission of this disease to livestock is of major economic concern in Australia and New Zealand. (Cowan, 2001; Innes and Barker, 1999)

Conservation Status

Feathertail possums are common in suitable habitats, though detailed population information is not available. These possums are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and are considered low risk/least concern.

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

denise krentz (author), University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Chris Yahnke (editor, instructor), University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

arboreal

Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

causes or carries domestic animal disease

either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

insectivore

An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

island endemic

animals that live only on an island or set of islands.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nectarivore

an animal that mainly eats nectar from flowers

nocturnal

active during the night

rainforest

rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.

scent marks

communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

References

Collins, L. 1973. Monotremes and Marsupials. Washington D. C.: Smithsonian Institute Press.

Cowan, P. 2001. Advances in New Zealand mammalogy 1990-2000: Bushtail possum. Journal of The Royal Society of New Zealand, 31:1: 15-29. Accessed November 29, 2006 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/workspaces/.accounts/item570364710/account_reference_edit_form?reference_ident=1f07da07712653b376aee8b02f0f9a1d.

Flannery, T. 1995. Mammals of New Guinea. Carina, Australia: Reed Books.

Hume, D. 1999. Marsupial Nutrition. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Innes, J., G. Barker. 1999. Ecological consequences of tozin use for mammalian pest control in New Zealand- an overview. New Zealand journal of Ecology, 23:2: 111-127. Accessed November 29, 2006 at http://www.nzes.org.nz/nzje/free_issues/NZJEcol23_2_111.pdf.

Low, B. 1978. Environmental Uncertainty and the Parental Strategies of Marsupials and Placentals. The American Naturalist, 112:983: 197-213. Accessed November 28, 2006 at http://www.jstor.org/view/00030147/di006188/00p01817/12?frame=noframe&userID=8fec23ca@uwsp.edu/01cc99331500501b2f3e7&dpi=3&config=jstor.

Nowak, M. 1991. Walker's mammals of the world, 5 ed. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Perrott, M., C. Wilks, J. Meers. 2000. Routes of transmission of wobbly possum disease. New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 48:1: 3-8. Accessed November 29, 2006 at http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/nzva/nzvj/2000/00000048/00000001/art00001.

Russell, E. 1982. Parental Investment and Desertion of Young in Marsupials. The American Naturalist, 119:5: 744-748. Accessed November 28, 2006 at http://www.jstor.org/view/00030147/di006234/00p0056f/0?frame=noframe&userID=8fec23ca@uwsp.edu/01cc99331500501b2f3e7&dpi=3&config=jstor.

Sillitoe, P. 1988. From head-dresses to head-messages: the art of self-decoration in the highland of Papua New Guinea. Royal Anthropological Institue of Great Britain and Ireland, 23: 298-318. Accessed December 01, 2006 at http://www.jstor.org/view/00251496/dm993947/99p0128p/0?frame=noframe&userID=8fec23ca@uwsp.edu/01cce4406600501b33bd6&dpi=3&config=jstor.

Springer, S., et al. 1989. Rates of single-copy DNA evolution in phalangeriform marsupials. Department of Biology, University of California, Riverside; and University of Wisconsin Zoological Museum, Madison., 4:331: 331-341. Accessed October 04, 2006 at http://mbe.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/6/4/331.

Temby, I. 2004. Urban wildlife issues in Australia. International Urban Wildlife Symposium: 27. Accessed November 29, 2006 at http://cals.arizona.edu/pubs/adjunct/snr0704/snr07041d.pdf.

Ward, S. 1998. Number of teats and pre- and post-natal little sizes in small diprotodont marsupials. Journal of Mammology, 79:3: 999-1008. Accessed November 29, 2006 at http://www.jstor.org/view/00222372/ap050320/05a00320/0?frame=noframe&userID=8fec23ca@uwsp.edu/01cc99332400501b25dd3&dpi=3&config=jstor.

Woolley, P., A. Allison. 1982.

Observations on the feeding and reproductive status of captive feather-tailed possums, Distoechurus pennatus (Marsupialia: Burramyidae).
. Australian Mammalogy, 5: 285-287.

Ziegler, A. 1977. The Biology of Marsupials,Evolution of New Guinea’s marsupial fauna in response to. Baltimore: University Park Press.