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Frederick McCoy’s 1885 Prodromus, included this coloured version of a drawing of Gymnobelideus leadbeateri that had been used in the 1867 scientific description.

The evolution of the ‘naked dart’

Leadbeater’s possum evolved up to 20 million years ago.

It was first scientifically described by Frederick McCoy in 1867 on the basis of two specimens sent to the recently established Melbourne Museum. The specimens had been collected by Jim Peters from scrub on the banks of the Bass River in West Gippsland. McCoy noted the superficial similarity of the specimens to the previously described Sugar Glider, known at the time as Belideus*, Greek for “dart”, because of its gliding ability. The obvious difference was that the new possum lacked a gliding membrane, so McCoy called it the “naked dart” or Gymnobelideus. The specific name, leadbeateri, comes from the taxidermist at the museum, John Leadbeater, who preserved the first two skins, which are still in the museum’s collection.

Over the following decades the swamp forests of the Bass River area were drained and cleared to make way for agriculture. By the early 1900s only a handful of specimens had been collected, the forests were gone and it was soon presumed the species was extinct.

By 1960 the animal had not been seen alive for 50 years and it was declared, “almost certainly extinct”. But on 3 April 1961, the species was rediscovered by naturalist Eric Wilkinson in the forests at Cambarville and Tommy’s Bend, near Marysville, The first specimen collected in more than 50 years was obtained later in the month. Extensive searches followed and it was established that the existing population is limited to Victoria’s Central Highlands. However, the availability of suitable habitat is critical: Leadbeater’s possum requires three essential components, big, old hollow-bearing trees in which it can build its nest, a mid-storey of wattles in which it feeds on sap and a dense under-storey providing horizontal connectivity so that it can move safely around. Conservation efforts for Leadbeater’s possum involve protection of remaining old-growth trees, and maintenance of mature stands that will, in time, develop hollows and provide future habitat.

The combination of 40-year-old wattle regrowth (for food) and large dead and decaying Eucalyptus trees left still standing after the 1939 fires (for shelter and nesting) allowed the Leadbeater’s possum population to expand to an estimated peak of about 5000 in the early 1980s. From that peak the Leadbeater’s possum population was expected to further decline rapidly, by as much as 90%, due to a habitat bottleneck as suitable den trees decayed and eventually collapsed. The use of the industrial clear fall system of logging contributed to the destruction of existing hollow-bearing trees and the absence of creation of new ones. The February 2009 Black Saturday bushfires destroyed around 45% of Leadbeater’s Possum’s reserved habitat in the Central Highlands, possibly halving the wild population. An Ecosystem Assessment published in 2014 (Burns et al.) concluded the Mountain Ash ecosystem in the Victorian Central Highlands is Critically Endangered, with a high probability it will collapse within 50 years.

The Sugar Glider is now known as Petaurus breviceps.

Leadbeaters-Possums-were-recorded-in-Sub-Alpine-Snow-Gum-Woodland-at-Mt-Erica
In 1971 Leadbeater’s possums were recorded in sub-alpine Snow Gum woodland at Mt Erica

Highs and Lows

In 1971 Leadbeater’s possum were recorded in sub-Alpine Snow Gum woodland at Mt Erica and at nearby Mt Baw Baw 5 years later. In 1981 they were observed in similar habitat at Lake Mountain. It was noted that these high-altitude observations were always close to Alpine Ash forest and it was unclear whether the animals were foraging visitors or resident in the area. However in 1993 Leadbeater’s possums were observed emerging from a hollow in the base of a Snow Gum on Lake Mountain, confirming that they were living there (Jelinek et al. 1995). The Black Saturday bushfires in February 2009 burned through the Lake Mountain plateau, effectively wiping out the entire population of up to 300 animals. The last three animals were later removed to Healesville Sanctuary. One, a young male, died soon after relocation but the remaining two were on public display in the nocturnal house for several years. These were closely observed by Marion Gould and served as the models for her lovely painting which is now available as a greeting card from our shop.

Leadbeater’s possums also live in Snow Gum woodland on Mt Bullfight, about 9 kms from Lake Mountain. This area was also affected by the 2009 fires but not burned as severely as Lake Mountain.

In 1986 a new population of Leadbeater’s possums was unexpectedly found at the Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve at Yellingbo in the Upper Yarra Valley. It was later found that these lowlands animals are genetically distinct from those in the montane Ash forests, having been separated for up to 10,000 years. The lowlands Leadbeater’s possums at Yellingbo may be the last remaining representatives of the original West Gippsland swamp forest population described by McCoy in 1867. At the current time (June 2022) less than 40 of these special animals survive.

Lost and Found

A presentation video celebrating the rediscovery of the Leadbeater’s possum.

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George watches his home disappear on a log truck!

George the Leadbeater’s Possum

George is a very important member of our FLBP team. He has travelled extensively to meet, greet and educate people of all ages. He has been photographed by professionals and amateurs alike and in a huge range of locations! Here is his story…

In 2010 Georgia, a wildlife carer, was driving along the Maroondah Highway approaching the summit of the Black Spur, when she noticed an animal lying still beside the road. She stopped to render assistance, only to discover the animal was unfortunately already dead. However she was astounded when she realised it was an endangered Leadbeater’s Possum! This was particularly surprising as the Black Spur road area is not Leadbeater’s Possum territory.

The animal had no marks on its body. It hadn’t been hit by a vehicle or caught by an owl and dropped. Perhaps it had travelled out from a clearfell logging coupe with the logs on the back of a truck. Certainly a lot of animals are still inside trees when they are felled, most are killed instantly.

Realising she was in possession of a very special rare creature she took the body to the Parks Victoria office in Woori Yallock and Ranger Joanne Antrobus, who was working with Leadbeater’s Possums at the time, took charge of it. George remained in the freezer for a year while Parks Vic and Melbourne Museum discussed who had the rights to the body and who was going to pay to have it taxidermied.

In the end Melbourne Museum took the body (as they have first call on any deceased wildlife) and had it professionally taxidermied. On 6th April 2011 at the 50th Anniversary celebration of the rediscovery of Leadbeater’s Possum, Melbourne Museum kindly donated George back to Parks Victoria for the Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum to use for public education purposes.

George, a male, is named for his rescuer, Georgia.

Historical Timeline

  • 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

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