Genetics to the rescue: recovery of the mountain pygmy-possum
Mt Buller’s mascot Barry would be happy to know his mates are in safe hands. A team of researchers from the University of Melbourne, La Trobe University, cesar, Mt Buller Mt Stirling Resort Management, and the University of New South Wales have used genetic rescue, a novel breeding technique, to bring the mountain pygmy-possum population back from the brink of extinction.
Published Friday 20 October in the international journal Nature Communications is the story of the recovery. Small numbers of male mountain pygmy-possums sourced from a healthy population nearby Mt Hotham were released into the Mt Buller population between 2011 and 2014.
Successful breeding between Mt Hotham and Mt Buller possums has injected diversity into the gene-pool, overcoming years of inbreeding and lack of genetic variation. Increased genetic diversity is important for overcoming disease and creating a more robust population, allowing the possums to flourish and increase their breeding rate.
Dr Andrew Weeks from the University of Melbourne, who led the project, said that since the genetic rescue program began in 2011, the possum population has gone through rapid growth and is now larger than when the population was first discovered in 1996.
“Now, Mt Buller females from the genetic rescue are bigger and have more offspring that survive longer than the progeny of pygmy possums born outside the program. We now estimate the population to be over 200 possums.”
Co-author Dr Ian Mansergh from La Trobe University said the study’s findings mark an important development in conservation management.
“Our study confirms genetic rescue as a successful conservation technique, especially when used for small, isolated populations of threatened species,” Dr Mansergh said.
The genetic rescue compliments years of habitat restoration, predator control and environmental protection works led by the environmental team from Mt Buller Mt Stirling Resort Management.