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Top 10 Facts About Possums in Australia

Top 10 facts about possums

Possums along with kangaroos and koalas are iconic Australian fauna.  Another Aussie icon, Dame Edna Everage, fondly used the term “Hello possums!” in her stage and TV shows.

Australians have always lived alongside these small nocturnal marsupials benefiting from their silky smooth fur and leather. In 1837 possums were introduced into New Zealand to establish a fur trade. Unfortunately, with no predators and plenty of edible vegetation, possums have become such a problem in New Zealand that The National Possum Control Agencies was created in the early 1990s to control the problem.

The two most widespread possum species in Australia:

Of the 23 possum species known in Australia, there are two most likely to be thumping across your roof or growling in the darkness at night:

The Common Brushtail Possum

(Trichosurus vulpecular, from Greek and Latin which means “furry tailed little fox”) is a nocturnal, semi-tree dwelling marsupial in the Phalangeridae family. It is indigenous to Australia and is the size of a domestic cat and the second biggest possum in Australia. It is an introduced species in New Zealand.

The Brushtail Possum has a pointed face and pink nose, with long oval ears and bushy black tail. In Tasmania there are three colour variations: silver grey, black and gold. Possums which inhabit denser, wetter forests tend to be darker in colour.

The Common Ringtail Possum 

(Pseudocheirus peregrinus, from Greek and Latin which means “false hand pilgrim”) is an Australian marsupial. It lives in various habitats and eats a diversity of plants, flowers and fruits. The Ringtail Possum does not inhabit New Zealand.

The Common Ringtail Possum is the size of a small cat and mainly grey with white fur on the tip of its lengthy prehensile tail, behind its eyes and on its belly. It has orange brown tinges on its tail and limbs. It can be coloured grey to dark grey and have red or orange tinged legs and belly.  The underneath of its often coiled tail is naked, but furry on top.

A female possum is called a “Jill,” a male one is called a “Jack,” while young ones are called “Joeys”. A group of these creatures is called a passel.

Possum population control

Despite natural possum population control in Australia (feral animals, dingoes, bush fires and less abundant vegetation), Common Ringtail Possums can be found all along the East of Australia and SW Western Australia, and Common Brushtail Possums flourish throughout mainland Australia, Tasmania and Kangaroo Island.

While legislative possum control is permitted in Tasmania to protect crops and for commercial trade in meat and skins, strict regulations govern moving and trapping possums in the rest of the country.

So, for many Australians these days, possums are not simply cute, furry creatures seen ambling across overhead branches at dusk, but also frustratingly destructive pests which have moved into our backyards, homes and sheds to eat our prized garden produce and leave our verandas smelling from their urination and droppings.

Top 10 Possum Facts

Fact 1:  Diet

Possums are mainly herbivores (plant eaters), favouring eucalyptus and other leaves, ferns, buds, flowers and fruits.  Brushtail Possums are known to be tolerant of many plant toxins and will eat trees that other animals find poisonous.  Possums will also eat insects, moths, grubs snails, birds’ eggs and babies.  They particularly like young new plant shoots and unfortunately are drawn to domestic gardens.  Here they will eat everything from roses to rock melons, camellias to carrots, magnolias to mangoes, wisteria to wattle, and can decimate a veggie garden in no time.

Other food which we may grow for ourselves that possums love includes:

Fruits: Apples, pears, grapes and bananas.
Vegetables: corn, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and broccoli
Native species: Many of the Acacia and Wattle species, and also many Eucalypts.

Fact 2: Defence from enemies

Possums are territorial and will urinate on their area and rub oil from glands on their chest, chin and anus to mark it as theirs.  They are generally shy and not aggressive and will often stare at each other with erect ears to defend their territory.

The common Brushtail Possum often has a red-brown stain on its chest fur from a scent gland which it uses to mark its territory.

Brushtail possums have a range of vocalizations such as clicks, hisses, grunts and coughs, chattering and screeching.  Ringtail Possums will secrete a strong smelling liquid from their anal glands if handled. If they are trapped however, possums will defend themselves.

Fact 3: Habitat

Possums are arboreal animals and spend most of their time in rainforests, eucalypt forests and wooded garden areas and shrubs that have dense foliage near a water source. While they do not dig underground dens, they are happy to take up residence in tree hollows, and the Ringtail Possum will build a soccer ball sized nest (drey) several metres above ground in dense foliage which they line with leaves, grass and soft bark.

Although they prefer tree-dwelling, possums will seek out house roofs, garages, sheds and also chimneys.

Fact 4: Behaviour

Possums are nocturnal and mainly feed between dusk and dawn.

Brushtail Possums are generally lone creatures, choosing company when they want to breed. Ringtail Possums however, have larger family groups where one male and one or two females will share a drey and forage together for food at night and they share parenting duties. The Ringtail Possum male is currently the only possum known to help care for its young.

With both Ringtail and Brushtail possums the newly born will crawl to the mother’s pouch where it will receive milk from a teat for around 4-5 months.  The young leave the pouch and suckle for another 4-8 weeks riding on their parent’s back until fully weaned.

Once they reach 13 months of age, possums are sexually active.  With an average life span of 6-7 years and up to 11 years, that gives possums plenty of opportunity to have lots of babies, especially the Common Ringtail Possum which can have 2 and sometimes 3 joeys at a time!

Possums are incredibly agile!  They can climb vertical walls and have been known to jump from a tree to roof up to 4 metres away!  They can pull off roof tiles and squeeze through the smallest of holes.  They have been seen walking along power lines and balancing on fine branches.

They are as inventive as they are supple!  One possum pair eager to get their paws on tasty garden veggies was witnessed balancing like acrobats: one hanging from a branch, holding the other’s back legs in its front paws and lowering him down the tree!

Fact 5:  Destruction

Possums aren’t aggressive, however they do have the tendency to eat whatever they can and take shelter anywhere they feel safe, including inside the household roof.

The most common types of destruction possums can do to our home include: defecating on sheds, attics or house verandas, raiding poultry houses to eat chicks and eggs, tearing insulation and ductwork, and pilfering garbage bins and bird feeders.  They also mark their territory with scent glands and urine, which smells pungent and is unhygienic.

Other wild life can leave similar trade marks.  To be certain that any damage was caused by possums and not another native animal, check for their foot tracks.

Fact 6: Fur, Skin and Meat

Possum fur is incredibly smooth and silky with hollow fibre, providing perfect insulation and soft, light garments.  Currently up to 10,000 possums are commercially killed in Tasmania for the domestic fur and skin market and also the domestic meat market.  There are plans to expand this total commercially to up to 100,000 under the Tasmanian Management Plan for the Commercial Harvest and Export of Brushtail Possums.

For crop protection alone around 300,000 Brushtail Possums are killed each year in Tasmania under permit.  These measures are taken to decrease the potential destruction of crops while ensuring the possum population does not become extinct.

Fact 7: Diseases and immunities

While bovine tuberculosis is a problem in New Zealand possums, there is no evidence that Australian possums carry the disease. In fact Australia is tuberculosis free.

Possums, however, can carry a variety of mites, ticks, other parasites, and bacterial infections, some of which can be transmitted to animals and/or humans.  Possum faeces may also carry the buruli bacteria, which can cause sizeable skin ulcers in humans.  Barwon Health Associate Professor Daniel O’Brien has said that: “a good public health measure is to remove the possum faeces from the area as much as possible and wash your hands as much as you can after that to minimise potential exposures.”

Fact 8: Unique Tail

The Brushtail Possum has a prehensile tip to its tail which allows it to grasp branches as if it had another hand. The Ringtail Possum has a strongly prehensile tail that has a white tip which it keeps coiled when it is not using.  Both will use their tails for carrying nesting materials such as bunches of grass by looping their tails around them.

Fact 9:  Communication

Both jack (male) and jill (female) possums will attract the attention of other possums by making smacking noises.  Joeys however will sneeze and hiss when they are stressed or in danger.

Fact 10:  Major Disadvantages

Possums can be destructive to trees and wildlife as they feed on almost any food available.  They can also destroy what is in the home roof once it becomes their shelter.

Commercial crops can be devastated, as can home gardens and prized trees, shrubs, bushes and flowers.

Some diseases can be passed from possums to humans through contact with either the animal or their faeces.


Sources:

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39 Responses to Top 10 Facts About Possums in Australia

  1. Ruth says:

    Do possums dig holes?

    • Bird Gard says:

      Hi, digging holes isn’t typical possum behaviour so it probably is not them. Birds or maybe bandicoots are the likely culprits.

      You can use the possum deterrent against Bandicoots, but if it’s birds you might need a different product.

  2. David says:

    Very informative. Just by reading this article already gave us idea from how cute possums can be to how destructive they can get. Also, I never knew that possum fur and meat can be used and eaten.

  3. Sue Miki says:

    Thankyou I’m in new Zealand and a Joey crawled out of his dead mum 9months ago, he’s become my best buddy.

  4. Ailsa Cowan says:

    A ringtail possum seems to be hiding under a mass of dried grass and twigs in a large brass pot on my deck. It seems to be hibernating there as I don’t think it comes out at night. Is this possible? The grass is tight and does not seem to be disturbed on top. Thinking that the possum had gone away, I started pulling the grass out of the pot, but a little claw appeared, so I left it there. What do you think?

    • Hi Ailsa,

      We haven’t heard of ringtail possums hibernating but some other possums and other native mammals do engage in Torpor.
      Torpor is similar to hibernation, but instead of lasting months through a long cold winter, Torpor can be a daily event or just for a few days.
      It is believed that Torpor reduces metabolic rate and thus reduces the need to feed.

  5. Elvio says:

    Just found a possum sleeping under my house. Can they squeeze between the double brick cavity to get to the roof cavity? Thanks

    • Hello Elvio

      Possums are skilled at getting into roof spaces, and if there is the will they will find a way.
      But sometimes they are content to just sleep under a house.
      If you have a smaller ringtail it would be unlikely he would make a move into your roof space.
      It appears that it is just the big brush tails that go for roof space.

  6. Malcolm says:

    You might want to rethink this sentence … ;)

    “Possums will also eat insects, moths, grubs snails, birds’ eggs and babies”

  7. Tracey says:

    Has anyone had problems with skin ulcers from bacteria in possum poo? Did you swelling of the legs, with redness and weeping ulcers? If so, how was it treated? Otherwise known as Bairnsdale ulcers. Recent occurrences on Mornington Peninsula.

    • Hello Tracey

      That sounds awful, I hope medical attention has already been sought after.

      Not in Australia, but in NZ possums are carriers of bovine TB.

      I few years ago a Tasmanian customer told us that someone was bitten or scratched by a possum and was then infected with a Tularemian bacteria ( not sure of the spelling ) and that apparently did result in nasty ulcers and not feeling well.

      • gayle daniel says:

        Darren I tried to reply with info to TRACEY RE MY BAIRNSDALE ULCER .But your system asked me to pass the captcha test but it would only accept the 1st charachter requested which I think wasF but wouldnt record the 2nd character . It took me about 1/2 hour to reply being a SPEED TYPIST and all could you possibly retrieve my message and post it so I can try and get in touch with tracey. Hope you can . if not I’m happy for you to give her my phone number
        gayle daniel

        • Hi Gayle, unfortunately no, your previous message wasn’t captured. We don’t have your phone number but we can send Tracey a message and let her know you have some info for her.

  8. Rhonda says:

    Hi, we have a border of Agapanthus at the top of our Driveway (as our property is on a slope) Watsonia has also been flowering in the same border. On quite numerous occasions I have found the Watsonia pulled out from the ground and left in little bundles on the roadside, the orange flowers and the bulb gone. I first thought it was someone wanting the flowers for their home, but it is still happening even when the plant has finiashed flowering. There are both Bushtail and Ringtail Possums in our area, could they be responsible for this? ? Thanks Rhonda. ?

    • Hello Rhonda

      Possums are clever little things really, and they do collect material for nests. So carrying food off to eat elsewhere isn’t a stretch of the imagination. But we have never heard of anything like you are experiencing.

  9. Lucia Gosling says:

    I have befriended brushtails and ringtails that pass my property at night…I love them for what they are, beautiful little creatures.. there is no way I could eat or wear possum…the thought is horrible.

  10. Jo says:

    Hi, we have several possums around our yard. The smell of their urine is very strong & when we have the windows & doors open it is not pleasant. Is there something we can use to remove the smell?

  11. Sue Perry says:

    Great article. ..thank you! We have a resident male ringtail possum in our garden at the moment. Night after night in the last couple of weeks, he has been stripping pieces of palm frond of the main frond no doubt getting the drey ready for the family. Either that or he might be renovating for the mext series of House Rules!

  12. Greg Fletcher says:

    We have a female caramel-coloured ringtail in our garage – she arrived one day last week with a very thin joey on her back, and now the joey has disappeared and the mother has an enlarged teat looking like a hernia. We suspect that the joey is dead – perhaps is somewhere in our small orchard. is there anything that can be done to ease her swelling. Both she and the joey were quite smelly and very wet when they arrived. She is not looking much better now.

    Another question – the ringtails are eating soaked corn, apples, oranges etc. is the soaked corn an issue – should it be stopped?

    Thanks,

    Greg

    • Greg Fletcher says:

      Sorry – brushtail, not ringtail!!!

      • Hi Greg, an enlarged teat might just mean the joey is still alive and suckling from the mother. Most wildlife experts do say, don’t feed wild animals for a variety of reasons. Any processed food should be avoided, it is best they stick to what they would eat when left to their own devices. If they’re not well, it might be best to contact your local wildlife rescue centre.

    • Hi Greg, an enlarged teat might just mean the joey is still alive and suckling from the mother. Most wildlife experts do say, don’t feed wild animals for a variety of reasons. Any processed food should be avoided, it is best they stick to what they would eat when left to their own devices. If they’re not well, it might be best to contact your local wildlife rescue centre.

  13. Carolina says:

    We have an old male possum living in our shed, has been there for about six years or so, we got worried about rat poison, got wires to take him to vet. All good came back a week later in its own little box, disappear for a while, but now has returned to his little box in our back shed. I wasn’t awear about becoming ill from possum poo. So great info. We live in Coffs, NSW Australia

  14. Possum In My Roof says:

    Can anyone tell me if possums can claw through or eat through brick walls?

    • Hi, we have heard of possums pulling up tiles and pulling out chicken wire, easily defeating Gyprock and expandable foam, ripping off planks of wood that have been used to cover up holes, but never heard getting through brick unless there’s a gap that they can squeeze through.

      Possums never cease to amaze us what they can to do, but defeating brick is hard to imagine, you would surely have to have soft mortar for them to scratch their way through.

  15. […] One possum pair eager to get their paws on tasty garden veggies was witnessed balancing like acrobats: one hanging from a branch, holding the other’s back legs in its front paws and lowering him down the tree! -BirdGard […]

  16. Ilene says:

    I have had on and off { mainly on} 2 large brush tail possums living in my garage behind a loose brick up high over the roller door for several years, as they come and go I was surprised last week to find a much smaller one in their place. would this mean the older ones have died and their offspring has taken over? How long do they live?
    some time ago we moved a small cupboard in the garage that was facing the wall, out shot the two possums and the flew straight up to the roller door, we put the cupboard back in place and it is still there, perhaps they moved permanently back there, although they stayed behind the brick long after that. I should say that they only stayed one at a time as far as I know as the hole was quite small.
    This is in an outer Eastern suburb in Melbourne. thanks.

    • Hi Ilene

      Just about anything can happen with possums. They don’t always stick to one location to stay the night, they can come and go at their will.

      The young one may well be offspring in which case the male may not hang around for long, they often go their own way.

      Mother and daughter can stick together longer sometimes, but that can change when the daughter’s breeding time comes.

      Possums live on average between 6-7 years and can live up to 11 years.

      Regards Bird Gard

  17. Margaret says:

    Hi I have a possums every night and it sit on the roof and next door trees and on my shed and my dog go so mad jumping up and barking and it sit there and once it sat in tree and was making such a noise i thought it was my fridge was making the noise and I got two dogs and they go out in the yard and I think there eating there poo dropping can you tell me will it hurt them as my little girl dog has got some wrong with her liver since I move up hear in Newcastle I try to stop them but it hard when it comes into my yard at night so I don’t no how to stop it from coming in yard please if you no of any way to stop it can you email me

  18. Greg Ryan says:

    Hi every body i live on the central coast on a small property i was walking from my garage to the house when a brush tail possum jumped off the house onto my shoulder and started biting me i have never seen or heard of this behaviour before it broke the skin on my shoulder is there any risk of rabies does anyone know

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