Autumn 2001
Marsupial of the Season

 

The Brush-tailed Phascogale
(Phascogale tapoatafa)
 In Bush and Captivity

by
Sharon & Scott Butler

The Brush-tailed Phascogale is a large rat or squirrel-sized, carnivorous arboreal marsupial.  Only rarely coming to the ground, it spends nearly all of its time foraging for food in the trees and is capable of leaping up two metres between trees!  Like most marsupials, it is predominately nocturnal, coming out to eat between dusk and dawn.  Its distinguishing features are its long snout, grey colouration above with cream below and, as its name implies, it has a beautiful black bushy tail.

Please click on thumbnails to enlarge
Female Phascogale with young

The Phascogale feeds mainly on spiders, insects, small mammals and birds and during the day they can be found in their preferred nesting site of a tree hollow, which is usually lined with bark, leaves, fur and feathers.  Around the entrance to these hollows and also the surrounding areas you will find their scats.  These are dropped to mark their territory and are very pungent due to the high content of meat in their diets.  The scats are cylindrical in shape with narrow twists of fur and feathers, which can make them up to 5cm (two inches) long.

They have an interesting foot structure, which enables them to rotate their hind feet 180 degrees and hang upside down whilst they eat.  This position is one they seem to find very comfortable and will almost always eat this way.  They are also very skilled and quick climbers.

A typical dasyurid, the Phascogale has five separate clawed toes on the front feet.  These are also extremely dexterous and sensitive and are used to probe crevices in trees for insects.  Their gait is somewhat jerky and clumsy when bounding along, however when they are stalking their prey, they usually walk slowly and stealthily.  When they strike they are like greased lightning.

The earliest recorded name of these marsupials was “Vampire Marsupial” – this was due to its being recorded as predating on domestic poultry.

Distribution.

The Brush-tailed Phascogale is still found in southern Queensland, between the Great Dividing Range and the coast, through much of coastal northern NSW and many parts of central Victoria.  Also, it still occurs in the extreme south-west of Western Australia and the tip of Cape York Peninsula.  A sub-species occurs through the Kimberley Region and across the northern parts of the Northern Territory to Arnhem Land.  Unfortunately, the range of the Brush-tailed Phascogale is declining, primarily due to land clearance pressures, feral predators and feral honeybees taking over their tree hollows.  In fact, this species used to occur much more widely, to include the coastal areas of southern South Australia to the top of the Gulf of St Vincent, but with the last confirmed sighting recorded in South Australia in 1970, they are now presumed extinct there.  (Note: If a sighting is not recorded for 50 years then the creature concerned is considered extinct).  Regrettably, the population found in south-west Western Australia now covers less than half its pre-European range.

In the wild, the territories of individual animals are quite large and often overlapping.  A female’s range can cover anything from 20-70ha (50-175 acres), but rarely will it overlap with the territory of an unrelated female.  However, family members’ territories will overlap slightly.  The male’s range is twice that of the female and is actively defended, with upwards of 20 nest sites located in each territory.

Housing in Captivity.

We use an aviary style enclosure, which is 5.18m (17ft) long, 1.2m (4ft) wide and 2.75m (9ft) high.  It is constructed with mesh walls and roof and a 0.9m (3ft) kick plate around the base of the aviary.  The mesh we use is 25mm x 12.5mm (1” x ”).  We also have a shelter at the rear of the aviary, which has a solid roof and houses the food trays and nest boxes.  The rear wall is made of half mesh and half zinc-alum allowing us to inspect pouches and scrotums during the breeding period without the stresses caused by capture when trying to check their condition.

The nest boxes are 25cm (10”) x 25cm (10”) x 40cm (16”) with an entrance hole of 6cm (2.5”).  Bedding straw is strategically placed around the aviary, which is then gathered by the occupants and literally “stuffed” into the nest boxes.  They cram the straw into the box so tight that we sometimes wonder whether they leave enough room for themselves!  They also strip bark off trees (particularly stringy bark) and also use leaves.  They will also take dead chicks (we feed culled day old chickens) and other food into the nest – maybe for a midnight (or midday) feast should it rain!  We provide plenty of climbing apparatus i.e. branches, ropes, logs etc as they are extremely active and love to run and climb on everything and anything.

The only drawback to their filling the nest box with so much bedding is the catching of the animals.  It takes us many minutes to pull it all out by which time they are usually awake and hard to catch!  We find that removing the straw/bedding material enables us to locate the animal quicker.  When catching the animal and leaving the straw in the box, you run the risk of not having a good grasp on the animal.  If there is a lot of straw around their body there is the possibility of the animal breaking free of your grip.  The removal of some or most of the straw simplifies the catching process.

 

The Phascogale has a very distinctive tail

One important thing to remember is never house these animals next to one another, as they will fight to the death through the wire.  Ideally, you should never house any carnivorous marsupial next to each as there is always the danger of them attacking one another through the wire but there are suitable “roomies” that can be housed with Phascogales.  These should be ground-dwelling animals – a suggestion would be Long-nosed Potoroos or Brush-tailed Bettongs as the most suitable.  Bettongs will occasionally climb and Phascogales will occasionally go down to the floor, so there may be some overlapping in the two species territory.  One word of caution though - a friend who kept Phascogales with Northern Brown Bandicoots found that the Phascogales would sometimes predate the young bandicoots.

 

You will need to make sure the floor of the aviary is covered with some sort of mesh as Phascogales will dig - and dig!  We have now escape-proofed the floors in all our cages.  For those of you who keep wombats you will know how easy they can dig, just apply the same principals to Phascogales, the only difference being their size.

 

At the rear of the marsupial block is a walkway, which is totally enclosed from the elements.  It serves two purposes.  Firstly, should an animal escape, we can quickly capture it and return it to its rightful place and secondly, it protects us from the elements when we are attending to our animals.  When capturing any marsupial we would recommend using a silk net.  The reason is quite simple, they can’t see you through the silk so remain calmer and this makes it easier to locate their body to grasp.  Silk is also very light which, when waving the net above your head chasing an escaped Phascogale up and down the walkway, makes life a lot easier.  The best way to grasp any mammal, bird, or reptile is to grip the base of the skull with your index finger and thumb and you palm covering the back of the animal.  You can then turn the animal over and check its pouch etc and never use gloves.  Gloves are too restrictive and will reduce the sensitivity to your fingers and may cause you to do damage to the animal without you knowing.

 

Diet in Captivity

 

Many people supply carnivores with a selection of food every night.  We don’t do this but instead apply the principle of one food per night rotating different foods through the week.  We use mealworms, tinned cat food (meat varieties only, not fish), day old chicks (1 per animal), Wombaroo small carnivore food and egg, sultanas (soaked overnight – they love these), peas, corn, nectar (very occasionally) and dry cat food and water ad-lib.  Once a week all our animals go without food.  This does not upset them.  In the wild food sources are sometimes hard to find and not all the time will they find food.

 

Breeding and Longevity

 

Males are paired to females in mid-May and rotated every two or three days to another female.  The males are removed after 4-6 weeks, which is from early to mid June.  Gestation is usually about 30 days with birth anywhere from early June to July.  The average litter size is 7 with a maximum of 8 being born and there are few losses before weaning.  Maturity is reach at 10 months and the young are separated from the mother in late March.

 

Females generally live up to 3 years in captivity (our oldest is now nearly 4 years old) and can still be active and fertile.  There are limiting factors to their longevity – namely the canine teeth are worn down to the gums, which severely limits their ability to kill and feed.    The males lot is a short and stressful one.  They are born, reach 10 months of age, have 6 weeks in which to mate like mad and after all that – they die.    This stress reduces the immune response to disease.  One effect is the appearance of gastric ulcers and they are also susceptible to many infections, which makes them easy prey due to their weakened state.  All males (especially those who have had successful matings) are dead by the age of 12 months.

 

 
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