The Australian brushtail possum is New Zealand’s most damaging animal pest. Introduced deliberately for the fur trade, this cat-sized marsupial has wreaked havoc on native forests and wildlife.
Full story by Gerard Hutching
Main image: Brushtail possum
The Short Story
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The Australian brushtail possum is furry and about the size of a cat. It has a thick bushy tail, a pointed face, large ears, and long claws for climbing trees. Possum babies are born after a pregnancy of just 17–18 days. The tiny, blind babies crawl into their mother’s pouch, where they live for about 70 days.
Spread of possums
From 1837, possums were brought to New Zealand for their fur. They have spread throughout the country, and cause huge damage to native forests and wildlife. Since the 1990s, possums have been removed from some islands important for conservation.
Possums are trapped for their fur, as well as to produce leather and meat. Fibre from the fur is used to make hats and gloves, or mixed with merino wool to make clothes.
Possums are big eaters, and destroy trees, including pōhutukawa, rātā, kohekohe and kāmahi. In some forests, they kill many of the large trees. They eat flowers, stopping seeds from forming, so the forest cannot regenerate.
Possums eat the eggs, chicks, and sometimes adults of several native bird species. They also eat the fruit and flowers that birds need for food. Possums eat native bats, insects and snails.
Bovine tuberculosis (TB) is a serious disease that affects cows and deer. Possums can also catch it, and pass it on to cattle.
The government spends millions of dollars each year trying to control possums. Possums are killed using traps or poison. 1080 is the most common poison, but it also kills other animals, and some people believe it harms the environment.
A vaccine has been developed to stop possums from breeding so fast, and is being tested.