Herbert River Ringtails (Pseudochirulus herbertensis): Iconic Possums of Queensland, Australia

by DerdriuMarriner

Herbert River ringtails are Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service's icon. They have face and name recognition. But it is easier to see their image than them in the flesh.

Herbert River ringtails cannot be confused with Daintree River and green possums. Each one claims a recognizably, slightly different look on the general theme of mammals that are like:
• Bears in rounded ears;
• House-cats in mature size;
• Kangaroos in frontal pouches;
• Monkeys in prehensile tails;
• Squirrels in arboreal fearlessness;
• Weasels in pointed faces.

But all three come together in experiencing fears for shelter and survival. For example:
• They endure a common past of being cornered by multiple aborigine hunters intent upon harvesting possum flesh and fur.
• All three face life in habitats fragmented and reduced by agro-industrialists.

But there still may be time for all three to move from survival to sustainability thanks to Queenslanders and UNESCO.

Carl Lumholtz, Norwegian explorer and ethnographer:

Robert Collett's description of Herbert River ringtail possums was based on specimens from Carl's 1880-1883 Australian expedition.
undated portrait of Carl Lumholtz: frontispiece, Carl Lumholtz's Among Cannibals (1889)
undated portrait of Carl Lumholtz: frontispiece, Carl Lumholtz's Among Cannibals (1889)

 

The first Herbert River ringtail possum specimens known to European scientists are from over 130 years ago.  They belong to a collection which a Fåberg-born Norwegian archaeologist, ethnographer, explorer and writer gathered in the nineteenth century. The specimens come from the Australian expeditionary tour of Carl Sofus Lumholtz (April 23, 1851 – May 5, 1922) between 1880 and 1883. They form part of the holdings of the Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo in Norway. It is on the basis of the above-mentioned skins and skulls that Christiania-born Norwegian arachnologist, mammalogist and ornithologist Robert Collett (December 2, 1842 – January 27, 1913) published the first official description and taxonomic identification of Herbert River ringtail possums in 1884.

 

Norwegian zoologist Robert Collett:

credited with first description and taxonomic identification of Herbert River ringtail possum (Pseudochirulus herbertensis)
Fotograf / Photographer: Robert Collett (1842-1913)
Fotograf / Photographer: Robert Collett (1842-1913)

 

Pseudochirulus herbertensis functions as the Herbert River ringtail’s scientific name. The genus name hallows the “false hand” look of each forefoot, whose first two digits are opposable to the other three. Each rear foot has as the first digit a hallux (“big toe”) opposable to the other three. Both “hands” thereby hold onto their food in human-like ways while ringtails sit up straight and squat on their tails. Their feet and “hands” thereby hold onto branches, forks, and trunks while ringtails navigate tree canopies. The species name honors the geographic location of Carl’s specimen-collecting successes in the Herbert River Valley of northeastern Australia. The common names Herbert River ringtail possum and mongan join the binomial (“two-name”) designation.

 

Herbert River possum prehensile, tapered tails attain mature lengths of 11.42 – 18.5 inches (290 – 470 millimeters). Their bases continue the dense, soft, woolly corporeal fur, which is black to dark brown in adults and fawn in juveniles. They contrast with the white of:

  • Friction pad-functioning, hairless tail-tips;
  • Under-parts;
  • Upper forearms.

Heads display:

  • Big, dark, rounded eyes whose eyeshine is pink-orange;
  • Dark longitudinal median striping on juveniles;
  • Roman noses.

Herbert River ringtails mature to:

  • Head-and-body and tail lengths respectively of 11.85 – 15.75 inches (301 – 400 millimeters) and 11.42 – 18.5 inches (290 – 470 millimeters), with females occupying the lower ranges;
  • Weights of 28.22 – 43.39 ounces (800 – 1,230 grams) in females and 28.57 – 53.97 ounces (810 – 1,530 grams) in males

 

Pseudochirulus herbertensis under synonym of Phalangista herbertensis: #1 (top left) male, #2 (top right) female)

illustration by Joseph Smit (July 18, 1836 – November 4, 1929)
Plate XXX, between pages 380-381: Robert Collett's "On some apparently new Marsupials" (1884)
Plate XXX, between pages 380-381: Robert Collett's "On some apparently new Marsupials" (1884)

Colors and shapes blend with the tree canopies in which Herbert River ringtails dwell, feed, and mate. Bi-annual mating times -- with the second occurring if litters die after the first -- cluster in early summer and winter. Solitarily-inclined fathers-to-be immediately depart. Two newborns emerge after 13 – 14 days of gestation. They find their way from the birth canal to their mother’s frontal pouch. They go through:

  • Pouch-living for 3 - 4 months;
  • Back-riding;
  • Alternating being alone in maternal dens with joining their mother on forages, the hour after sunset to 1-1/2 hours before daybreak.

By their first breeding season, they graduate from high-pitched, rapid, soft chatter to clicks for stress and grunts and screeches for displeasure.  

 

Herbert River ringtail possums favor flowers of Queensland native tree, bumpy satinash (Syzygium cormiflorum).

Syzygium cormiflorum, Lake Eacham, Atherton Tableland - buds and flowers on trunk
Syzygium cormiflorum, Lake Eacham, Atherton Tableland - buds and flowers on trunk

With independence, Herbert River ringtails abandon the home shared just by a mother and her dependent offspring. Dens can be:

  • Common ringtail (Pseudocheirus peregrinus) possum-like, dome-shaped nests of interwoven bark, ferns and leaves;
  • Opportunistic shelters of stripped bark at the edges of overlapping home ranges of 1.24 – 2.47 acres (0.5 – 1.0 hectare);
  • Ready-made nests within epiphytic ferns clumped on upper tree branches;
  • Tree hollows.  

They must be in upper canopies, but accessible to:

  • Flowers: Bumpy satinash (Syzygium cormiflorum);
  • Fruits: Silver quandong (Elaeocarpus kirtonii);
  • Leaves: Brown quandong (Elaeocarpus ruminatus), cadaghi gum (Eucalyptus torelliana), murpe vine (Melodinus bacellianus), paper-barked (Syzygium ligneum) and red eungella (Acmena resa) satinash, pink ash (Alphitonia petriei), pink bloodroot (Eucalyptus acmenoides), white basswood (Polyscias murrayi).

 

A small population of Herbert River ringtail possums inhabit Herberton Range, cut off from main population by Herbert River Gorge.

"Bracken fern in open woodland on the Herberton Range."
"Bracken fern in open woodland on the Herberton Range."

Wildlife-lovers access Herbert River ringtail possum homelands at elevations of 1,148.29+ feet (350+ meters) in northeastern Queensland. A past of agro-industry’s large-scale land clearings and selectively intensive logging confine current populations to such silvan habitats as:

  • Dense tropical rainforests;
  • Logged and open forests;
  • Swampy forests within the lower reaches of the Herbert River ringtail’s home territory;
  • Wet sclerophyll (“hard-leaved”) forests dominated by flooded gum (Eucalyptus grandis) overstories and tree fern (Cyatheales order) understories and located on the western edges of the Herbert River ringtail possum’s homelands.

The challenge to the Herbert River possum’s survival is more in the lack of continuous canopy than in the particular woodland configuration even though scientists question the impact of eucalypt forest-living. 

Herbert River ringtail possum's landscape: Barron Gorge National Park, part of Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Site.

Passage of Barron River over eastern escarpment of Atherton Tablelands formed Barron Gorge.
Barron Gorge, near Kuranda, Queensland
Barron Gorge, near Kuranda, Queensland

The wooded niches of Herbert River ringtail possums dot such areas of great natural beauty as:

  • Atherton and Evelyn Tablelands;
  • Herbert River Gorge;
  • Herberton, Hugh Nelson, and Lamb Ranges;
  • Mount Lee.

They include Barron Gorge, Girringun, and Wooroonooran National Parks. They lie within easy access of:

  • The Great Barrier Reef in the Coral Sea off coastal northeastern Queensland;
  • The port city of Cairns;
  • The sugar cane plantation center of Ingham;
  • The tropical forest-surrounded town of Kuranda.

But research scientists note that Herbert River ringtails on the average lead life cycles that currently last just 2 – 6 years. They suggest that de-isolating Range populations and enhancing the Mulgrave and North Johnstone catchments will improve and lengthen ringtail lifespans. 

Major threat to survival of Herbert River ringtail possums: gluttonous predation of mothers, mothers-to-be, and young'uns by carpet pythons.

Jungle carpet python (Morelia spilota cheynei) is a subspecies sharing Queensland nativity with Herbert River ringtail possums.
Jungle carpet python (Morelia spilota cheynei): Reptilien-Zoo, Scheidegg, Free State of Bavaria, southeastern Germany
Jungle carpet python (Morelia spilota cheynei): Reptilien-Zoo, Scheidegg, Free State of Bavaria, southeastern Germany

Conclusion: Achieving sustainable equilibrium for Herbert River ringtail possums, dwellers of Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Sites

 

Climate change assails Herbert River possums. Dwellers of higher altitudes, Herbert River ringtails cannot survive sustained warming above 86ºF (30ºC). They likewise do not tolerate site-specific genetic in-breeding which habitat fragmentation imposes. Genetically weakened possums increasingly fall victim to the carpet python’s (Morelia spilota) sinister predation of mothers, mothers-to-be, and “sub-adults” despite the adult ringtail’s grinding mouthful of:

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

But healthy sustainability is a likely scenario since Queenslanders consider Herbert River ringtails as ecologically diverse, environmentally significant, evolutionarily enlightening, and naturally beautiful as Queensland's UNESCO-designated Wet Tropics World Heritage Sites. 

 

Kuranda Railway Station, known as greenest in Australia: in proximity to rainforest habitats of Herbert River ringtail possum

Kuranda Railway Station with Kuranda Scenic Railway
Kuranda Railway Station with Kuranda Scenic Railway

Acknowledgment

 

My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.

 

view of female Herbert River ringtail possum's skull, from the top

Robert Collett's "On some apparently new Marsupials from Queensland" (1884)
Figure 3, page 384
Figure 3, page 384

side view of skull and lower jaw of female Herbert River ringtail possum

Robert Collett's "On some apparently new Marsupials from Queensland" (1884)
Figure 4, page 385
Figure 4, page 385

Sources Consulted

 

Abbott, J.H.M. (John Henry Macartney). 1908. The South Seas (Melanesia). With twelve full-page illustrations in colour by Norman Hardy, F.R.G.S. London: Adam and Charles Black.

  • Available via Internet Archive at: https://archive.org/details/southseasmelane00hardgoog

Bassarova, M.; Archer, M.; and Hand, S.J. December 20, 2001. “New Oligo-Miocene Pseudocheirids (Marsupialia) of the Genus Paljara from Riversleigh, Northwestern Queensland.”Memoirs of the Association of Australasian Palaeontologists 25:61-75. 

Berger, Alison. "Pseudochirulus herbertensis (On-line)." Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. Retrieved on March 8, 2014. 

  • Available at: http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Pseudochirulus_herbertensis/

Bisby, F.A.; Roskov, Y.R.; Orrell, T.M.; Nicolson, D.; Paglinawan, L.E.; Bailly, N., Kirk, P.M.; Bourgoin, T.; Baillargeon, G.; Ouvrard, D. 2011. "Pseudochirulus herbertensis." Species 2000 & ITIS Catalogue of Life: 2011 Annual Checklist. Reading, United Kingdom. Retrieved on March 8, 2014. 

  • Available at: http://www.catalogueoflife.org/annual-checklist/2011/search/all/key/pseudochirulus+herbertensis/match/1

Burnett, S. & Winter, J. 2008. "Pseudochirulus herbertensis." In: IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. Retrieved on March 8, 2014. 

  • Available at: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/18509/0

Chambers, John, 2009. "Herbert River Ringtail Possum: Pseudochirulus herbertensis." Rainforest-Australia. Retrieved on March 8, 2014. 

  • Available at: http://rainforest-australia.com/herbert_possum.htm
  • Available at: http://wildlife-australia.com/herbert.htm

Collett, Robert. 1884. "On some apparently new Marsupials from Queensland." Proceedings of the Scientific Meetings of the Zoological Society of London for the Year 1884, Vol. 52, Issue 3 (May 20, 1884): 381-389. London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer. Retrieved on March 8, 2014.

  • Available via Biodiversity Heritage Library at: http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/28690276 
  • Available via Internet Archive at:  https://archive.org/stream/proceedingsofgen97scie#page/317/mode/1up

Duff, Andrew; and Lawson, Ann. 2004. Mammals of the World: A Checklist. Yale University Press. 

Flannery, Timothy F. 1994. Possums of the World: A Monograph of the Phalangeroidea. Chastwood, Australia: GEO Productions in association with the Australian Museum. 

"Herbert River Ringtail Possum." Pp. 121-122 in Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, Second Edition. Volume 13: Mammals II, edited by Michael Hutchins, Devra G. Kleiman, Valerius Geist, and Melissa C. McDade. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, Inc., division of Thomson Learning Inc., 2004.

Kerle, Jean Anne. 2001. Possums: The Brushtails, Ringtails and Greater Glider. Sydney: University of New South Wales Australian Natural History Series. Retrieved on March 8, 2014. 

  • Available at: http://books.google.com/books?id=YDM0hjAwchUC&lpg=PT65&dq=Petropseudes%20dahli&pg=PT66#v=onepage&q=Petropseudes%20dahli&f=false

Larsen, Fredrik. June 8, 2012. "Norwegian Builders of Australia." ReiseFredrik i Australia. Retrieved on March 8, 2014.

  • Available at: http://reisefredrik.com/2012/06/08/norwegian-builders-of-australia/

Laurance, S.G. 1999. "Tropical Wildlife Corridors: Use of Linear Rainforest Remnants by Arboreal Mammals." Biological Conservation 91:231-239. Retrieved on March 8, 2014.

  • Available at: http://mammalsresearch.blogspot.com/2011_04_01_archive.html

Lumholtz, Carl. Among Cannibals: An Account of Four Years' Travels in Australia and of Camp Life with the Aborigines of Queensland. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1889. Retrieved on March 8, 2014.

  • Available via Internet Archive at: http://www.archive.org/stream/amongcannibalsac1889lumh#page/n5/mode/2up

Menkhorst, Peter; and Knight, Frank. 2001. A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 

Meredith, Robert W.; Mendoza, Miguel A.; Roberts, Karen K.; Westerman, Michael; and Springer, Mark S. March 2, 2010. “A Phylogeny and Timescale for the Evolution of Pseudocheiridae (MarsupialiaDiprotodontia) in Australia and New Guinea.” Journal of Mammalian Evolution17(2):75-99. Retrieved on March 8, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2987229/

Nowak, Ronald M. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World, Sixth Edition. Volume I. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Nowak, Ronald M. 2005. Walker's Marsupials of the World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Ride, W.D.L. A Guide to the Native Mammals of Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1970. 

Strahan, Ronald; and Conder, Pamela. 2007. Dictionary of Australian and New Guinean Mammals. CSIRO Publishing. 

"Wet Tropics of Queensland." UNESCO World Heritage Centre List. Retrieved on March 8, 2014.

  • Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/486

Wilson, D.E.; and Reeder, D.M. 2005. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, Third Edition. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wooded habitats of Herbert River ringtail possums are located in proximity to coastal city of Cairns.

View of Cairns from Lake Morris with the Yarrabah peninsula in the background.
View of Cairns from Lake Morris with the Yarrabah peninsula in the background.
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Kuranda's Railway Station passes through Barron Gorge National Park, home to Herbert River ringtail possums: photo by Fraser Hall

10x14 Photo Puzzle with 252 pieces. Packed in black cardboard box 5 5/8 x 7 5/8 x 1 1/5. Puzzle image 5x7 affixed to box top.
Photo Jigsaw Puzzle: Railway station, Kuranda, Queensland

2nd joint book by husband-wife team of artist-author-naturalist Pamela Conder and zoologist Ronald Strahan:

First unified guide to the mammals of both Australia and New Guinea: based on Ronald Strahan’s first dictionary of Australian mammals, published in 1981, it includes all species, both native and introduced.
Dictionary of Australian and New Guinean Mammals

5,049 species: first checklist of mammals of the world to include both English and scientific names of every species as well as a brief summary of distribution and habitat.

Andrew Duff and Ann Lawson are experienced naturalists who have been studying mammals for many years: between them, birders and mammal-watchers in many countries on five continents.
Mammals of the World: A Checklist

Barron Falls, Kuranda, Cairns, Queensland, Australia: photo by Peter Adams

stunning natural beauty in Barron Gorge National Park, home of Herbert River ringtail possums
Barron Falls, Kuranda, Cairns, 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: 08/20/2014, DerdriuMarriner
 
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