Welcome to the News section of the iNSiGHT Ornithology website (
www.simoncherriman.com). This blog contains updates about various things I've been up to, interesting environmental issues and observations I make regularly while going about my day. It is designed to be fun AND educational, and inspire you about our wonderful natural world. Happy reading!

Monday, 15 April 2013

Roadkill


Sometimes finding a dead animal on the road can give us a great learning experience. This picture shows a native marsupial which many of us have never heard of, let alone seen. It is known as a Wambenger, or Brush-tailed Phascogale (Phascogale tapoatafa), one of our most cryptic but fascinating animals. Although I spend much of my time out and about in the bush, both during the day and at night, finding this individual was only the second time I have ever seen one (the other time was also a road-kill victim).

While it might be sad to think about an animal getting killed by a car, this particular victim would have died very soon any way. It was a male - and after each breeding season, all male Wambengers in a population die off. While it may seem strange, this bizarre phenomenon is in fact common among many carnivorous Australian marsupials (a group known as Dasyurids). They do it because it helps boost survival of the next generation by reducing the amount of competition for resources, so newly dispersing young Wambengers, and their mothers, have ample food and nest sites. Also, the fact that mating can be a physically exhausting event which goes on for hours and hours might have some impact on the males' lifespan - I'm surprised more male mammals don't keel over after aggressively mating for 6-8 hours straight!

So - what about Wambengers? Why don't we see them? Like many small to medium-sized marsupials, their numbers have declined since European settlement from impacts like feral cat and fox predation, habitat loss and altered fire regimes. Such large changes have an enormous toll on population size and distribution. However, Wambengers are obviously still around, and are known to exist in areas where native bushland is preserved. They are seldom encountered because they are nocturnal, resting during the day in a well-hidden nest inside a tree hollow, and arboreal, spending much of their night-time foraging period climbing around the canopy. Even if one was out foraging close to the ground while you were out walking through the bush at night, your presence would probably make a Wambenger rush up the tree and hide.

What about food - what do they eat? Having a look at an animal's teeth is a great way to gauge what it eats...


You can see from this picture that a Wambenger's teeth are very sharp and pointy, with 2 obvious canines near the front. This dentition points to a carnivorous diet, one that requires the right tools for lots of chopping up and slicing of food. Morsels munched upon include a variety of animals, from crickets, spiders and cockroaches to geckos and even small birds. Wambengers are also known to eat mice, especially baby ones, so this (together with their insectivorous diet) can make them useful garden additions for keeping pest species down.

There are only a few rare examples of this species living close to human occupation (in buildings and sheds) and making themselves visible. If you like the idea of having a 'native squirrel' living near you which will help munch your garden bugs and has the possibility of revealing its fascinating self to you, then you might like to know some information about how to 'cater' for them. As I said, native bush is a must, although it probably doesn't have to be totally pristine (the section where this fella was found was mostly weedy pasture, except for the numerous native trees left growing. Phascogales also need European predators (i.e. your pet cat) kept under control and inside, especially at night. And lastly, to make their homes they require tree hollows, which can be provided in the form of nest boxes, attached to living trees about 3 metres above the ground. Installing a nest box and checking inside it regularly can be a great way of knowing if you do in fact live close to one of these amazing animals.

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