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The urban ecology of western ringtail possums (pseudocheirus occidentalis): abundance, survival and resource use in remnant habitat patches in Busselton, WA
Urbanisation in the south-west of Western Australia is occurring at one of the fastest rates in Australia. Endemic to this region, the western ringtail possum (Pseudocheirus occidentalis), is under significant threat due to continuing habitat loss. This species is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN and has experienced a significant contraction in its geographic range, which has been attributed to loss of habitat, the introduction of exotic predators and a change in fire regimes. The largest populations of western ringtail possums are thought to occur in Busselton and this is often referred to as the last stronghold for the species. However, there has been very limited research conducted on populations in the City of Busselton.
The aim of my PhD is to investigate the urban ecology of the western ringtail possum within the City of Busselton. Sites will vary to represent the wide array of habitat types available to ringtail possums in the city, from cleared parkland to intact bushland reserves. The following questions will be addressed:
1) What habitat characteristics influence western ringtail possum abundance?
2) What habitat characteristics influence the resource use of western ringtail possums, in particular den choice and foraging behaviour?
3) What habitat characteristics influence the survival rates of western ringtail possums?
My research is significant because western ringtail possums are under substantial pressure from urban development and the resultant habitat fragmentation; however, the impact of this on its populations has not been investigated. The majority of studies conducted on western ringtail possum ecology has been conducted in nature reserves and other conservation estate. However, a large part of the current geographic range of this species is now within urban areas. A limited number of surveys have been conducted in the urban area; however, they are often ad hoc and for the purposes of informing planning bodies on further development. These surveys generally rely on raw counts, which can only indicate the minimum number of possums alive at that point in time. My study will be using techniques, such as distance sampling, that are now recognised as being more scientifically robust than previous methods used to survey western ringtail possums, such as one off spotlight counts, drey counts and scat counts. My research will also involve monitoring the survival, den choice and foraging behaviour of individuals using radio-telemetry to give a full indication of the status of this species in an urban environment.
This research will also increase our knowledge of the ecology of western ringtail possums in general and of a threatened species in an urban environment. Our knowledge of species within urban environments is still very limited. Studies in urban environments have often focused on common and pest animals within an urban environment and the management of these species. However, we know little about how to manage threatened species in urban environments to ensure their persistence. This research will increase our knowledge about the ecology of a threatened species in an urban environment and the appropriate management practices to maintain their populations.