TS-CRC Student project - Ecology and behaviour of tropical Rock-haunting possums (Petropseudes dahli and Wyulda squamicaudata)

Myf Webb inspects distinctive and unique scent mark deposits left by rock-haunting possums

Myf Webb (nee Runcie) inspects distinctive and unique scent mark deposits left by rock-haunting possums
Photo: Pavel German

After the PhD

I finalised my PhD thesis while employed by CSIRO as a research scientist in Canberra. The area of research was immunocontraception of mice using a viral vector. This involved laboratory work in Canberra and Perth and large-scale field experiments in the mallee country of Victoria.

For a week during this time—but as a rock possum specialist—I located and captured free-ranging rock possums ( Petropseudes dahli ) for Australian National University and the Northern Territory Wildlife Park. These possums are now exhibits at the Park.

I left CSIRO and became a full time horse trainer and then took up my first permanent job in a research position with the Public Health System. I now divide my time between creative pursuits, a private business and government employment.

Myf Webb holds a rock-haunting possum

Myf Webb (nee Runcie) holds a rock-haunting possum
Photo: Pavel German

Northern Territory University, Darwin: Completed

Myf Webb

Rock haunting possum | Scaly-tailed possum | After the PhD | Possum Peer Reviewed Publications | Popular magazine articlesConference Presentations | More information |

Rock-haunting possum

The rock-haunting possum ( Petropseudes dahli ) has been the subject of most of my research. Their distribution ranges from the Kimberley region of Western Australia across the Top End to the Gulf of Carpentaria and Western Queensland.

Radio-tracking and behavioural observations of a population in Kakadu National Park revealed this species to be highly social. These possums live in family groups of two adults and one or two young. During the day, they use rock crevices as den sites which are cool and safe from predators. Soon after dark, possums move together down from the rocks to the trees which grow close by.

Unique characteristics of the rock-haunting possum include biparental care with the male providing 50 per cent of total parental care. This degree of male care is rare among mammals and unreported in marsupials. They have an extensive communication system including substantial scent-marking of trees and rocks within their homerange. Anti-predatory behaviour includes a range of behaviours and is highlighted by a coordinated sentinel system among groups of possums. Sentinel behaviour is usually associated with birds but has been recorded in some orders of mammals such as primates.

Scaly-tailed possum

My studies also included the only other tropical rock-dwelling possum, the scaly-tailed possum ( Wyulda squamicaudata ). This elusive and mysterious possum is endemic to the rugged Kimberley region of Western Australia. I found a population of Scaly-tailed possums, and collected information on movements, den sites, diet and foraging behaviour. Results showed they require relatively large homeranges, fractured rock, and certain plant species.

Suggestions for management of these two possum species' habitat involves reducing habitat modification, (particularly ensuring the regeneration of food trees up to 50 m from rocks) and reducing feral predators. Fire management and the protection of rainforest patches for survival of frugivore dispersers should also help to maintain the vegetation diversity in rock possum habitats.

Possum peer-reviewed publications

  • Runcie, M.J. 2002, 'Scent-marking and vocal communication in the rock-haunting possum, Petropseudes dahli ', Book chapter accepted In Possums and Gliders 2 nd Edition.
  • Runcie, M.J. 2000, 'Biparental care and obligate monogamy in the rock-haunting possum, ( Petropseudes dahli ) of tropical Australia', Animal Behaviour , 59:5, 1001-1008.
  • Runcie, M.J. 1999, 'Movements, nest sites and feeding behaviour of the tropical scaly-tailed possum ( Wyulda squamicaudata )', Wildlife Research , 26, 367-373.
  • Hume, I.D., Runcie, M.J. and Canton, M.J, 1997. 'Digestive physiology of the ground cuscus ( Phalanger gymnotis ), a New Guinea phalangerid marsupial', Australian Journal of Zoology, 45:561 - 571.

Popular magazine articles

  • 'Adventures at Possum Rock' by Myfanwy Runcie Nature Australia (Autumn 2000).
  • “Scaly Tales” by Myfanwy Runcie Australian Geographic (Oct/Dec 1999).

Conference Presentations