Brush Tailed Phascogale – Brenda

The Brush-tailed Phascogale [Phascogale Tapoatafa], also known as a Tuan is classified in Australia as Uncommon, and Rare in Victoria. It is listed under the Flora & Fauna Guarantee Act, 1988. Under wildlife shelter permit conditions, operators are required to inform DEPI if this species comes into a shelter.

Distribution in Victoria

Brush-tailed Phascogales were once more widespread in Victoria but are now found in a broad band across lowland Victoria from east of Tallangatta, south-west to the Apsley and Chetwynd areas of south-western Victoria.
The 500mm annual rainfall is the approximate northern limits of this species in Victoria and in most locations there is little difference in summer and winter rainfall.
Altitude range is from 20m to 700m although they have been recorded to 1500m in central NSW.
They once occurred on the Gippsland Plain and nearby foothills, the Bellarine Peninsula and at Mallacoota Inlet. Records from these areas are all pre 1970. Despite many fauna surveys being conducted in the East Gippsland area over the past 25 years there are no recent records.
The Box-Ironbark forests of Central Victoria are a significant proportion of its range.
Some areas Brush-tailed Phascogales have been reported from are – Chiltern Box-Ironbark NP, Reef Hills SP, Rushworth SF, Whipstick SP, Taradale, Brisbane Ranges NP, Paddy’s Ranges SP, Kara Kara SP, and Mt Alexander.

Habitat Preference & Requirements

The Brush-tailed Phascogale inhabits dry open forest and woodland with a sparse understorey and ground cover.
In Central Victoria the preferred habitat is the Box-Ironbark forests and in southern Victoria they use mixed Stringybark-Box Forests.
Common eucalypt species in their habitats include Red Stringybark, Red Box, Long-leaf Box, Grey Box, Yellow Box, Red Ironbark, Mugga Ironbark, Yellow Gum and Messmate.
Understorey and ground cover may be sparse often consisting of scattered grass tussocks and forest litter.
Brush-tailed Phascogales prefer to forage in larger trees with trees <25cm diameter rarely being used. Ironbark and Box trees are the preferred foraging trees with Stringybarks rarely being used if the others are present, however the bark of Stringybarks is required for nest construction. Smooth barked trees such as Yellow Gum are often present but they are rarely used as Brush-tailed Phascogales have difficulty climbing smooth barked trees. Dead and malformed trees with rotten wood and hollows are also important foraging and nesting sites.
Individual Phascogales have been recorded using between 10 and 40 different nest sites each year. Sites may be in tree stumps, hollows in dead or living trees, under flaking bark or in old babblers nests. Sites such as flaking bark, babblers nests and low tree stumps offer little protection from predators and in some cases the weather. Where natural hollows are uncommon artificial hollows are quickly accepted by phascogales as den and nursery sites. Ceilings of houses and sheds have also been used.
Females are particular in their selection of nursery nests requiring a large cavity accessible by a small hole (30-40mm wide) competition for such hollows is intense with species such as Sugar and Squirrel Gliders also requiring hollows and with feral honey bees using them for hives.
The home range of Phascogales is large, over 100ha for males and 20-70ha for females.

Breeding

The frenzied mating season occurs in May and June after which (about July) all male Brush-tailed Phascogales die at an age of 11-12 months. The frenzied mating season appears to leave them susceptible to stress induced diseases that kills them. This must be taken into account with males brought into shelters at this time of year. Births occur from mid June to early August after a gestation of about 30 days. Females have 8 teats although a small percentage have only 7. Females commonly carry litters of less than the number of teats, one study found a mean litter size of 6.6 at midway to weaning. The young are permanently attached to the teats until they are about 7 weeks old. At this stage they weigh only 2.3 to 4.2g. they are now left in the nursery nest while the mother forages at night. For the first few days she returns to the nest frequently to suckle and warm the young.
Lactation lasts for up to 25 weeks and weaning to solid foods begins at about 14 weeks and is a gradual process extending over 6 or 7 weeks.
Juveniles disperse in early summer. Females commonly abandon their home range to their litter with the females establishing territories in or near the maternal home range (within 2km) and the males dispersing widely. One male is known to have travelled 15km over a 6-week period.
Females seldom survive 2 years and usually succeed in raising only one litter.

Diet

The Brush-tailed Phascogale is a carnivore that predominantly feeds on arthropods such as beetles, spiders, centipedes and ants, which they extract from crevices in the bark of trunks and large branches of trees and rotten wood of dead and living trees, occasionally they also feed on the ground. Nestlings and House Mice caught in traps are also known to have been taken.
Flowering eucalypts, particularly Ironbarks and Boxes are also visited where they feed on nectar.

Threats

In much of the preferred habitat of the Brush-tailed Phascogale natural hollows are scarce forcing them to use less protected nest sites where they are more vulnerable to introduced predators such as Foxes and Cats (both feral and domestic). There is also predation by Goannas and Owls.
Feral bees invade hollows making them unsuitable for native species.
Removal of standing dead and large live trees for firewood and other uses reduces available foraging sites and potential nest/den sites.
Clearing, degradation and fragmentation of preferred habitat may leave populations stranded, or in a situation where they have to cross open ground where they are more vulnerable.
Fire is also a threat particularly in isolated populations. If isolated populations are to survive some males must reach maturity each year.
The large home ranges, low population density, short life span and male die-off period make this species particularly vulnerable to local extinctions.
There are a number of reports of Brush-tailed Phascogales drowning in water tanks. Entry and outlet points to tanks should be covered to prevent these and other species entering.

Ed. note : Release requirements

Details that are collected when this species arrives at a shelter are most important and may mean the difference in the survival or death of the released animal.
Phascogales exist in very low-density populations due to the small amount of prey available (which necessitates large home ranges). Due to the territorial nature of females, the exact location where the animal was found is crucial for its release. Unless there is some factor e.g. found on busy road or brought in by cat or dog, animals must be released where they were picked up or in suitable habitat very close by. Homework may have to be done to find a suitable release point If for some reason this isn’t possible. DEPI should be consulted as to the closest records of the species to the pick up point, local field naturalists may also be of help in this regard. Call Garry on 54 612970, he knows local areas and can find out where they are located close to their pick-up spot. . Always remember that the released animal will need a large patch of bush to survive or corridors between patches.
Always release in the hollow that the animal has been in whilst in care. Another hollow that has been in their enclosure and marked with their scent should be placed some distance away. Hollows should be placed high enough to be out of harms way.
An important point to remember is that male phascogales only live for one year so release as soon as possible is essential to give it the chance to establish its own territory and mate before it dies.
An environment as natural as possible needs to be created in the phascogales rehabilitation area.

Tuan

Tuan recently photographed by a member near Goornong central Victoria

As phascogale nails are not as sharp as some of our other arboreal mammals, it is important to place their release hollows in rough barked rather than gum barked trees, and as part of the preparation for release at least part of the natural food being offered to the animal/s in care should be hidden in crevices or rotten wood in their enclosure. Remember there won’t be bowls of food in the bush for them.

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