Cinereus Ringtail Possums (Pseudochirulus cinereus) of Daintree River in Queensland, Australia

by DerdriuMarriner

Ghosts abhor the ground. They appear and disappear like grey floaters. The same can be said of Daintree River ringtail possums.

The word possum can be a nickname or a full name. As a diminutive, it only conjures up the opossum, a member of the Didelphidae order of night-foraging marsupials in the northwestern hemisphere. As a full name, it only describes the possum, a member of the Diprotodontia order of predominantly evening and night-hunting mammals in the southeastern hemisphere.

The origins in both cases go back to a seventeenth-century term for "white beast" in Powhatan, a now-extinct language also called Virginia Algonquian. An opossum is indeed white. A possum typically is any number of variations on the color theme of black or brown.

One of the exceptions is the somewhat ghostly-looking and moving Daintree River ringtail possum.

southern extent of Cinereus ringtail possum's territory: north of port city of Cairns

foreshore promenade, Cairns
foreshore promenade, Cairns

 

Geographical distribution accounts for the common name Daintree River ringtail possum. Daintree ringtails naturally can be found nowadays in Australia in northeastern Queensland at:

  • The Carbine Tablelands;
  • The Mount Windsor Tablelands;
  • The Thornton Peak massif.

So the current configuration of their native lands centers on territory to the:

  • North of the port city of Cairns;
  • South of Cape Tribulation.

It therefore draws upon the atmospheric humidity and terrestrial moisture inherent in near-coastal tropical locations. It falls within the Daintree River watershed. It includes the Daintree River National Park. It is protected by the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area designation conferred upon northeastern Queensland by the World Heritage program administered through the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

 

Cinereus Ringtail Possum (Pseudochirulus cinereus) range

Distribution data from IUCN Red List
Distribution data from IUCN Red List

 

Another common name, cinereus ringtail possum, acknowledges the marsupial mammal’s binomial (“two-name”) designation and physical appearance. The Daintree ringtail’s taxonomic name, Pseudochirulus cinereus, attributes importance to two physical traits. The genus name comes from the ancient Greek words for “false hand.” It describes the Daintree ringtail possum’s forepaws, each of whose first two digits is (human-like) opposable to the other three. A hallux (“big toe”) functions as the sole opposable digit on each rear paw. The sharp, short claws on each paw help to project an ashy grey impression, which is reinforced by parts of the Daintree ringtail’s body, head and tail. The species name cinereus in fact is from the same-spelled Latin word for “ashen grey.” 

 

Species name, cinereus, of Cinereus ringtail possum is Latin for "ashen grey":

ash grey color of wood ash from a campfire
Campfire scar on A. concolor, P. benthamiana, P. lambertiana, etc., forest floor, Snow Creek Trail, Yosemite National Park, east central California
Campfire scar on A. concolor, P. benthamiana, P. lambertiana, etc., forest floor, Snow Creek Trail, Yosemite National Park, eas...

 

The taxonomic niche of Daintree ringtails arises from their first official description and subsequent revisions. It first and foremost benefits from English-born American botanist and zoologist George Henry Hamilton Tate’s (April 30, 1894 – December 24, 1953) examination of skins and skulls while curating mammalogy collections at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History in 1945. His identification depicts Daintree ringtails as having:

  • Darkly-striped down the middle of the backs and heads;
  • Dense, light brown, woolly fur;
  • Pointed, Roman-nosed snouts;
  • Prehensile tails whose tips ring-curl and undersides showcase hairless friction pads.

Subsequent research differentiates Daintree ringtails as:

  • A distinct species in 1989 by chromosomal number and interbreeding impossibilities;
  • Previously misnamed Pseudocheirus canescens, per Timothy Flannery in 1994.

 

Herbert River ringtail possum (Pseudochirulus herbertensis): previously Cinereus ringtail possums were viewed as subspecies of Herbert River ringtails.

illustration by Joseph Smit (July 18, 1836 – November 4, 1929); Robert Collett, "On some apparently new Marsupials."
Proceedings of Scientific Meetings of the Zoological Society of London for the Year 1884 (May 20), Plate XXX, between pp. 380-381
Proceedings of Scientific Meetings of the Zoological Society of London for the Year 1884 (May 20), Plate XXX, between pp. 380-381

 

Inexperienced wildlife-lovers can fumble when attempting to distinguish between Daintree River, Herbert River (Pseudochirulus herbertensis), and lemur-like (Hemibelideus lemuroides) possums. But the confusion over proximitous geographical distributions and subtle physical similarities dissipates with experience in inspection and with images. For example, Daintree ringtails favor altitudes -- 1,377.95+ feet (420+ meters) -- which begin at higher elevations than those of Herbert River and lemur-like possums, at 1,148.29+ feet (350+ meters) and 1,312.34+ feet (400+ meters) respectively. Daintree ringtail possums indeed lead arboreal-dominated life cycles devoted to foraging and foraying through the high canopies of tall trees in:

  • Cool wet rainforests;
  • Primary and secondary tropical forests;
  • Wet sclerophyll (“hard leaf”) forests with eucalypt (Eucalyptus spp) overstories and rainforest understories.

 

Lemur-like ringtail possum (Hemibelideus lemuroides): Both Cinereus and Lemur-like ringtail possums are seen as resembling lemurs (superfamily Lemuroidea).

illustration by Joseph Smith (July 18, 1836 - November 4, 1929); Robert Collett, "On some apparently new Marsupials from Queensland."
Proceedings of Scientific Meetings of the Zoological Society of London for the Year 1884 (May 20), Plate XXXI, between pp. 380-381
Proceedings of Scientific Meetings of the Zoological Society of London for the Year 1884 (May 20), Plate XXXI, between pp. 380-381

 

Predatory wedge-tailed eagles (Aquila audax) haunt the above-mentioned tracts of continuous canopy in rainforests. But forested elevations in fact let Daintree ringtails practice active avoidance of eagles, owls, and pythons. Canopy connectivity permits Daintree ringtails to:

  • Feed on nocturnally-available flowers, fruits, and leaves within home ranges of 7.41 – 49.42 acres (3 – 20 hectares);
  • Hide and sleep in diurnally-available, singly-occupied branch-bolstered nests and leaf-lined hollows;
  • Raise offspring through single-parent arrangements;
  • Select solitary lifestyles within communities in which all Daintree ringtails receive individual shelters and space. 

It nevertheless provides no protection from the endoparasites from which Daintree ringtails may suffer. Researchers indeed suspect as internally-located parasites of Daintree ringtails:

  • Cestode flatworms (Platyhelminthes phylum);
  • Nematodes (Nematoda phylum);
  • Protozoans (Protista kingdom).

 

Cinereus ringtail possum's audacious predator: Wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax, "bold eagle")

Wedge Tailed Eagle (Aquila audax), Australia's largest bird of prey
Wedge Tailed Eagle (Aquila audax), Australia's largest bird of prey

 

April and May comprise peak months in year-round breeding seasons. One litter of 2 offspring gets produced yearly. Males probably lack parental involvement since female nests only are:

  • Conjugal for mating adults;
  • Familial for pre-adult offspring.

Newborns lead pouch-confined lives for 4 -5 months. They then let foraying on their mother’s back alternate with waiting on branches during maternal foragings. They may be considered:

  • Weaned at 5 – 6 months and weights of 9.88 ounces (280 grams);
  • Independent at 10 months;
  • Sexually mature at 18 – 24 months.

Adult head-and-body lengths measure 6.57 – 14.49 inches (167 – 368 millimeters). Adults weigh from 24.69 - 42.33 ounces (700 – 1,200 grams) as females to 29.28 – 51.15 ounces (830 – 1,450 grams) as males.

In comparison to a record 15 years for a female in captivity, researchers accord Daintree ringtails life expectancies of 4 – 5 years in the wild. Dominating communication, nutrition and sanitation skills contributes to Daintree ringtail survival. Communication apparently does not involve sounds since Daintree ringtails only vocalize as pre-adults separated from their mothers. It instead draws upon:

  • Feces;
  • Sternum gland-generated scents;
  • Touch.

Fecal droppings in fact emerge as important communicators and energizers. They function as dietary supplements by being digested, processed by the caecum’s (entrance to large intestine) bacteria, and re-eliminated. Initial digestion of plant parts may give folivores (leaf-eaters) minimal nutrients. Re-digestion and re-elimination releases previously unavailable, now-soluble nutrients by recycling, reusing, and reducing environmental wastes. 

 

Daintree National Park: namesake habitat of Daintree River ringtail possum, also known as Cinereus ringtail possum

on the banks of the mighty Daintree: Daintree National Park, Queensland
on the banks of the mighty Daintree: Daintree National Park, Queensland

Conclusion: Sustainability of ghostly, pacifistic Daintree ringtails in protected habitats

 

Low-energy, slow-moving Daintree ringtails elude observation and hopefully predation. They compare to conscientious objectors and pacifists in avoiding conflict and refraining from violence despite claws and grinding dental formulas of:

  • 3 incisors, 1 canines, 3 premolars, and 4 molars per left and right upper jaws;
  • 2 incisors, 3 premolars, and 4 molars per left and right lower jaws.

How many succumb to natural enemies is unknown since predation happens in high canopies and Daintree ringtail predators leave no residue. But there may be strong reason to believe in Daintree ringtail sustainability since the somewhat ghostly-looking diprotodonts (“two forward-projecting teeth”) ghost habitats cherished by Queenslanders and World Heritage staff for:

  • Ecological diversity;
  • Environmental importance;
  • Evolutionary insights;
  • Natural beauty.

 

Cinereus ringtail possum habitat: Mossman Gorge, Daintree National Park, Queensland

Spurwood (Dysoxylum pettigrewianum), a large rainforest tree in the mahogany family (Meliaceae)
Mossman Gorge walking trail, Daintree National Park
Mossman Gorge walking trail, Daintree National Park

Acknowledgment

 

My special thanks to talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the internet.

 

Image Credits

 

foreshore promenade, Cairns: Jorge Láscar (Jorge Lascar), CC BY 2.0, via Flickr @ https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/4560383576/

Distribution data from IUCN Red List: Chermundy/ IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, species assessors and the authors of the spatial data, CC BY SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cinereus_Ringtail_Possum_area.png

Campfire scar on A. concolor, P. benthamiana, P. lambertiana, etc., forest floor, Snow Creek Trail, Yosemite National Park: Walter Siegmund (Wsiegmund), CC BY SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Campfire_scar_08319.JPG

Proceedings of Scientific Meetings of the Zoological Society of London for the Year 1884 (May 20), Plate XXX, between pp. 380-381
Public Domain, via Biodiversity Heritage Library @ https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/28690271

Proceedings of Scientific Meetings of the Zoological Society of London for the Year 1884 (May 20), Plate XXXI, between pp. 380-381: Public Domain, via Biodiversity Heritage Library @ https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/28690273

Wedge Tailed Eagle (Aquila audax), Australia's largest bird of prey: Thomas Schoch (Mosmas), CC BY SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons @ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wedge_Tailed_Eagle.jpg

on the banks of the mighty Daintree: Daintree National Park, Queensland: robstephaustralia, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons @ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:On_the_banks_of_the_mighty_Daintree.jpg

Mossman Gorge walking trail, Daintree National Park: Jorge Láscar (Jorge Lascar), CC BY 2.0, via Flickr @ https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/4560462410/; via Wikimedia Commons @ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lascar_Mossman_Gorge_walking_trail_-_Daintree_National_Park_(4560462410).jpg

Thornton Peak's summit overlooks Alexander and Cow Bay, Daintree National Park, Queensland: Goldenbowerbirds, CC BY SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons @ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thornton_Peak,_Daintree_National_Park.jpg

view of Mount Sorrow, Cape Tribulation, northern Queensland: Laurel Lodged, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mount_Sorrow,_Cape_Tribulation,_QLD.JPG

Thornton Peak (elevation: 4,508 feet / 1,374 meters), known as Wundu by Eastern Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal people, who attribute spiritual significance to many natural features of Daintree National Park's landscape:

along with Mount Carbine Tableland and Mount Windsor Tableland, comprises three exclusive native homelands of Daintree River Ringtail Possums
Thornton Peak's summit overlooks Alexander and Cow Bay, Daintree National Park, Queensland
Thornton Peak's summit overlooks Alexander and Cow Bay, Daintree National Park, Queensland

Sources Consulted

 

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northern extent of Cinereus ringtail possum's territory: south of Cape Tribulation

view of Mount Sorrow, Cape Tribulation, northern Queensland
view of Mount Sorrow, Cape Tribulation, northern Queensland
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Walker's Marsupials of the World by Ronald M. Nowak

Comprehensive guide to marsupials, unique category of mammals. Presents common and scientific names; biology; distribution. Illustrations from leading photographers and museums.
Walker's Marsupials of the World

2007 publication, based on Ronald Strahan’s first Dictionary of Australian mammals (published in 1981):

Includes all species, both native and introduced.
Dictionary of Australian and New Guinean Mammals [OP]

Walker's Mammals of the World (2-Volume Set)

Thoroughly describes every genus of the class Mammalia known to have lived in the last 5,000 years.
Walker's Mammals of the World (2-Volume Set)

Mammals of the World: A Checklist by Andrew Duff and Ann Lawson

Includes English and scientific names for 5,049 species.
Mammals of the World: A Checklist

Aerial View of Rain Forest, Daintree River, Daintree National Park, Queensland Australia:

photo by Peter Adams
Aerial View of Rain Forest, Daintree River, Daintree National Park, Queensland Australia

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 05/14/2022, DerdriuMarriner
 
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DerdriuMarriner on 07/27/2018

AngelaJohnson, Thank you for the appreciation! It's always interesting to find how similar names and words are used differently, particularly in the case of the Land Down Under, where there's quite an imaginative use of language.

AngelaJohnson on 07/20/2018

We have possums in the U.S. but they're a dull grey. It's interesting to see and learn about animals in other parts of the world.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/11/2014

KathleenDuffy, Thank you! I am happy that you appreciated my tribute to this charming ringtail.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/11/2014

VioletteRose, Thank you!

KathleenDuffy on 03/11/2014

Another really interesting article with lovely illustrations.

VioletteRose on 03/11/2014

Great images and details!

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