An Australian Research Council Discovery grant has enabled the first of a series of honours and postgraduate studies on two of Southwest Australia’s most endearing marsupials – the Honey Possum and the Western Pygmy Possum.
The studies aim to shed light on how flowering plants in the global biodiversity hotspot are pollinated by vertebrates.
Chief investigator and ARC Discovery Outstanding Researcher Professor Stephen Hopper said the project would explore whether Australian birds and mammals were responsible for wider dispersal of pollen and more outbreeding in plants than conventional theory predicted.
“Our studies may shed light on an intriguing aspect of Southwest Australian biodiversity, which has the highest proportion (15 per cent) of flowering plants in the world that are pollinated by vertebrates,” Professor Hopper said.
“We live in an exceptional global biodiversity hotspot, and this research is exploring and testing ideas why this is so. Ultimately, research of this kind may reveal how we can live sustainably with biodiversity, rather than in ways that cause the continuing loss of other species.”
Working in conjunction with Dr Siegy Krauss, Dr Ryan Phillips and Dr David Roberts at Kings Park and Botanic Garden, Professor Hopper has initiated a series of studies that have attracted students working in the field of pollination ecology.
Student Jessica Masson is enrolled for an Honours degree in conservation biology at the Centre of Excellence in Natural Resource Management at UWA Albany. Her project is exploring whether honey possums are most common in Torndirrup National Park, where flowers with abundant nectar and pollen are concentrated.
The work is an essential first step in planning future work on vertebrate pollinators (mammals and birds) in the ARC study. Another student, David Tunbridge, has begun a part-time PhD program to explore the topic in greater depth.
Ms Masson, whose research is supervised by Professor Hopper and CENRM’s Dr Peter Speldewinde, has worked closely with Mr Tunbridge in establishing and monitoring traps used to capture live honey possums, sample the pollen they carry, and release them in good shape.
One exciting discovery has been the presence of Western Pygmy Possums in Torndirrup National Park, a place where these delightful marsupials had not previously been recorded.
A few days ago, a second Western Pygmy Possum was discovered by the research team in kwongkan (heathland) vegetation west of Salmon Holes - unlike the eucalypt woodland where the first animal was observed late last year.
“It’s like bookends,” Jessica said. “The first Pygmy Possum turned up at the start of our trapping work at Torndirrup, and now the last day of my Honours field work was rewarded with a second animal in a completely different type of vegetation.”
Professor Hopper and Dr Speldewinde were delighted with the discovery. Professor Hopper said it would enable other research students to pursue comparative biological studies of honey possums and pygmy possums at Torndirrup.
UWA PhD students Nicole Bezemer and Bronwyn Ayre have also enrolled to work on the project, while a second Honours student, Bianca Theyer, has begun work at Torndirrup.
Caption: Western Pygmy Possum on Banksia, Torndirrup National Park. Photo S.D. Hopper
Professor Stephen Hopper (Centre of Excellence in Natural Resource Management) (+61 8) 9842 0842
Dr Peter Speldewinde (Centre of Excellence in Natural Resource Management) (+61 8) 9842 0845
David Stacey (UWA Media) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 32 637 716