Diminished annual snowfall in Australia's "Alps"—like on 5,922 foot Mt. Buller, seen here—has eroded the mountain pygmy possums' habitat. Image credit: thomasrdotorg/Flickr
Snow, it has long been thought, is essential to the survival of the highly-specialized mountain pygmy possum, which burrows beneath the drifts to hibernate each year. Global warming, however, is shrinking this already limited habitat range to a few dangerously small patches.
The fate of the possum, then, seems to be sealed but a new discovery in the fossil record suggests that there may be more hope for this species than anyone thought.Looking at the fossil record, researchers have discovered that for much of the last 26 million years, the possums thrived in a warmer, wetter, lowland climate. Mike Archer, a paleontologist at the University of New South Wales, explained:
We know that for at least the past 26 million years their ecological comfort zone was in much warmer wet lowland forests with rocky substrates. We don't know why they are so restricted now but they were clearly once much more widespread, so there's good reason to believe they could still survive and thrive at much lower altitudes.
If this is true, it could give new hope to breeding programs. "We can't rely on just breeding them up for future release into alpine areas," Archer said, "because climate change is already threatening that habitat." If pilot programs are able to successfully introduce acclimated individuals into lowland climates, however, they could succeed in establishing new wild populations.
Once legislative and funding hurdles have been hopped over, the University of New South Wales reports, the breeding program can begin.