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About Leadbeater's Possum

Facts, Details and History

State animal emblem

Leadbeater’s Possum was gazetted as the Victorian Mammal Emblem in March 1971 alongside the Helmeted Honeyeater as the Bird Emblem.

Listed Species

The Threatened List under the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 has been aligned with the Commonwealth EPBC List. Accordingly, Leadbeater’s Possum is now listed as Critically Endangered.

Federally, Leadbeater’s Possum is listed under the Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 as Critically Endangered.

It is listed as Critically Endangered in The Action Plan for Australian Mammals (Woinarski et al., 2014, CSIRO).

The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Animals 1994 lists Leadbeater’s Possum as Critically Endangered.

Leadbeater’s Possum is 10th on the Zoological Society of London’s Edge of Existence list of the world’s mammals.

Geyle et al. (2018) listed Leadbeater’s Possum as the 7th most imperilled Australian mammal, with a 29% likelihood of extinction within 20 years.

Garnett et al (2022) listed Leadbeater’s Possum as the 6th most imperilled Australian mammal out of 63 of Australia’s most imperilled vertebrates.

Threats to Survival

Logging of the Mountain Ash forests in the Central Highlands for woodchips (paper production) has resulted in the loss of vast areas of Leadbeater’s Possum habitat. Clearfell logging over several decades has contributed to the loss of large hollow-bearing trees which are needed as denning sites.

The fragmentation of suitable habitat by timber harvesting causes isolated small populations of animals, which are then unable to interact with other colonies for breeding.

Stochastic events, such as bushfires, disease, drought (climate change) and the collapse of habitat trees as they age and decay are also threatening processes for Leadbeater’s Possum.

History

  • 1867
    First specimens were collected in the scrub on the banks of the Bass River in Gippsland, Victoria.
  • 1909
    LbP last collected from Sunnyside, in the high country near Omeo. The specimen was mis-identified and its significance was not realised until the 1930s.
  • 3rd April1961
    Eric Wilkinson rediscovered LbP at Cambarville and Tommy’s Bend, near Marysville in the Central Highlands
  • 1967
    Des Hackett secretly begins keeping Leadbeater’s Possums in his backyard in Blackburn
  • 1971
    LbP declared the Victorian State Faunal Emblem, alongside the Helmeted Honeyeater
  • 1972
    LbP first bred in captivity by Des Hackett
  • 2006
    Death of the last Leadbeater’s Possums in captivity in Australia
  • February 2009
    Black Saturday bushfires destroy around 45% of reserved LbP habitat and population numbers in the wild are halved.
  • 2010
    Kasia died peacefully in her sleep at just over 10 years of age at Metro Zoo, Toronto, Canada. At the time she was the last captive Leadbeater’s Possum anywhere in the world.
  • 2011
    DSE and Parks Victoria ‘rescue’ the last 3 LbP’s from Lake Mountain (a population of around 300 having been destroyed in the 2009 fires) after a feral cat is filmed hunting near their nest box and a number of animals had ‘disappeared’. They are taken to Healesville Sanctuary. One later dies from unknown causes in its enclosure.
  • 2012
    Healesville Sanctuary
    begins a new Captive Breeding Program for lowland Leadbeater’s Possums from Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve (NCR). The program’s “founders”, wild possums, were brought into captivity to establish a breeding population. The breeding program is based only on the genetically distinct Yellingbo population of Leadbeater’s Possums. (June 2022, no breeding has been reported)
  • July 2013
    Two Lake Mountain LbP’s are put on display in the Nocturnal House at Healesville Sanctuary after DEPI refuses to issue a permit to return them to their wild habitat.
  • August 2013
    Professor David Lindenmayer calls on the Victorian Government to expand the current LbP Reserve System to include all LbP remaining habitat in the Central Highlands (including areas currently available for clearfell logging) in a new Great Forest National Park.
  • April 2015
    EPBC (Federal) Conservation Status uplisted to Critically Endangered.
  • July 2015
    Action Plan states that revised Recovery Plan will be in place by mid-2016
  • November 2017
    The first hearing in the Possums’ Case in the Federal Court.
  • June 2019
    The full hearing of the Possums’ Case over three weeks in the Federal Court, Melbourne
  • June 2019
    Federal Conservation Status confirmed as Critically Endangered following an unsuccessful application to downlist by an industry lobby group. FLbP lobbies for release of revised Recovery Plan
  • May 2020
    Judgment in the Possums’ Case in favour of Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum on all counts.
  • June 2020
    Bunnings announces that it will no longer retail VicForests’ timber as a result of the court decision.
  • August 2020
    Final Orders in the Possums’ Case including declarations of unlawful logging and injunctions preventing further logging in 66 coupes.
  • September 2020
    VicForests lodges appeal on 31 grounds.
  • October 2020
    Translocation trial of Lowland LbP to Wallaby Creek in Kinglake National Park. After early indications of success, trial abandoned due to predation by a cat and remaining animals returned to Yellingbo.
  • April 2021
    VicForests appeal heard in Sydney.
  • May 2021
    VicForests appeal allowed on one ground. Other findings of fact were not disturbed and the award of costs against VicForests was upheld.
  • June 2021
    FLbP filed application for Special Leave to Appeal to the High Court.
  • September 2021
    Again, FLbP lobbies minister for release of revised Recovery Plan
  • November 2021
    A second translocation trial established at a site north-east of Mansfield.
  • December 2021
    Application for Special Leave to Appeal to the High Court refused.
  • June 2022
    FLbP lobbies new Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, for release of revised Recovery Plan

Post Bushfire February 2009

Following the February 2009 bushfires in the Central Highlands, Leadbeater’s Possum is in serious decline. Over 45% of their reserved habitat was destroyed by the intense fires and estimates put the numbers of animals at around 1,500 animals but there could be less than 1,000 remaining.

There are approximately 40 Leadbeater’s Possums living in the Yellingbo State Nature Conservation Reserve alongside with the other Victorian Faunal Emblem, the Helmeted Honeyeater.

Leadbeater's Possum. Photo - J.P. Ferrero.

Leadbeater’s Possum
Photo: J.P. Ferrero.

Friends-of-Leadbeaters-Possum_Proclamation-Leadbeaters-Possum-Victorian-State-Emblem-1971_780x780

Proclamation of Leadbeater’s Possum becoming the mammal emblem of Victoria on March 3, 1971

home-hero-eric-wilkinson-big-tree-talk-cambarville_crop_v1_780x780

Eric Wilkinson at The Big Tree, Cambarville talking about his rediscovery nearby, back in 1961
Photo: Adam Fletcher

Leadbeater's Possum copyright Steve Kuiter

Juvenile Leadbeater’s Possum
Photo: David Lindenmayer

Leadbeater's Possum copyright Steve Kuiter

Old stag tree amongst Silver Wattle & Mountain Ash at Cambarville
Photo: Pam Miskin

Leadbeater’s Possum in captivity / zoos

From the original captive Leadbeater’s Possum breeding program (pioneered by Des Hackett) the last captive possum in Australia died in the Healesville Sanctuary in 2006.

“Kasia” was a 10 year old female Leadbeater’s Possum living at Toronto Zoo. She died in 2010. Descending from Hackett’s original captive bred possums she was the last Leadbeater’s Possum in captivity anywhere in the world. Her parents were born at Healesville Sanctuary in Victoria and were sent to Canada to enhance the captive breeding program. The successful captive breeding program was not continued as there was no structured release program for any of the captive bred animals.

In her last years Kasia was not on display at the zoo but was held in an off display enclosure by herself.

In 2012 a new captive breeding program was begun at Healesville Sanctuary. The program began by sourcing (bringing into captivity) animals from the wild population at Yellingbo. Although the same species, the Yellingbo animals are genetically distinct from the Central Highlands population. As of October 2020 the captive animals have not bred, consequently there is no plan in place for release of any captive bred animals back to Yellingbo, although other areas in the region are being investigated as possible future release sites.  There is no captive breeding program planned for the Leadbeater’s Possums found in the Central Highlands forests – habitat protection by ending logging of Mountain Ash forests in their range was recommended by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee as their best hope for survival.

Taxonomy

Common name: Leadbeater’s Possum (sometimes “Fairy” Possum)
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Diprotodontia
Family: Petauridae
Genus: Gymnobelideus
Species: leadbeateri

Gymnobelideus: from Greek: gymno – naked; belideus – dart, arrow; the Sugar Glider was then known as Belideus (dart) because of its flight, Leadbeater’s Possum was naked in that it lacked the glider’s gliding membrane.

leadbeateri: in honour of John Leadbeater (1831-88), the taxidermist who preserved the first LbP specimens at the Museum of Victoria.

Leadbeater’s Possum features, appearance and diet

Leadbeater’s Possum is a small arboreal (tree dwelling), nocturnal, omnivorous (eats animals and plants) marsupial (mammal which gives birth to tiny underdeveloped joeys, which usually grow in the mother’s pouch).

Body length: 150 – 170 mm
Tail length: 145 – 165 mm
Weight: 100 – 165 g

Colour: Grey to greyish-brown above and paler below. Has a dark mid-dorsal (along centre of back) stripe.
Appearance: Similar to a Sugar Glider, but without a patagium (gliding membrane) and has a long tail, shaped like a baseball bat (narrow at the base and wider towards the tip).
Diet: Exudates (saps and gums) from wattle and eucalypt manna (sweet secretion of leaves & branches); honeydew (droplets of sugary liquid produced when insects pierce leaves) secretions; and a variety of arthropods (invertebrates with jointed legs) crickets, beetles, flies, moths, ants and spiders.

Life history

  • Leadbeater’s possums live in colonies – up to 12 animals
  • Only one pair per colony will breed
  • Matriarchal society (female dominated)
  • Territory is 1.5 – 3 hectares and is well defended
  • Breeding can occur twice a year (spring/summer & autumn/winter)
    Up to 2 joeys in a litter
  • Females can breed again in the same season if the first litter dies
  • Life span in the wild is only about 6 years, but up to 13.5 in captivity

Important forest habitat features for Leadbeater’s Possums

  • A minimum of four big, old, hollow-bearing trees available for nesting
  • Suitable wattle trees in the surrounding understorey for feeding on sap
  • Smooth barked gum trees with hanging bark ribbons for foraging and nest material
  • Dense vegetation in the surrounding understorey providing –
  • Connectivity, allowing animals to move around their territory
  • Slope of site not too steep

Structure of Leadbeater’s habitat in Mountain Ash forests

Some of the major plants of the regrowth Central Highlands forests inhabited by Leadbeater’s Possum:

Important habitat feature: old stags

Stags are the very large, dead or dying trees usually over 200 years old in Mountain Ash forests. Leadbeater’s Possums nest in the large hollow trunks of these trees.
Kasia in Toronto Zoo. Photo: Brent Huffman.

Kasia in Toronto Zoo
Photo: Brent Huffman

Kasia. Photo: Brent Huffman.

Kasia in Toronto Zoo
Photo: Brent Huffman