Lowland Ringtail Possums (Pseudochirulus canescens) of Coastal Papua Indonesia and Papua New Guinea

by DerdriuMarriner

Beaches boast people to meet, places to go, and things to do. Their beauty brings in locals and visitors. So how do shy lowland ringtail possums thrive on New Guinea's busy coasts?

Coastal lowlands act as magnets to adventure-minded, nature-loving, and results-oriented people. They amaze people with their accessibility, comfort, resources, space, and views. They generally are empty only when:
• Surfs are super-absent;
• Waters are super-choppy;
• Weather is super-extreme.

But a bad-sand day does not keep coastal-dwelling wildlife away from coastlines and lowlands. Wildlife indeed evince general comfort levels of:
• Diet;
• Light;
• Moisture;
• Shelter;
• Temperature.

But they evolve over time in whatever directions survival and sustainability head.
• For example, scientists hypothesize that the ancestors of New Guinea's ringtail possums originally elected as preferential altitudes elevations not too far from sea level.
• The emergence of interior highlands is the catalyst for the differential heights at which different ringtail possums cluster.

Raja Ampat Islands, archipelago of 5 main islands and over 1500 islets, with great marine diversity off northwest tip of Bird's Head Peninsula:

third largest island, Salawati, is one of Lowland Ringtail Possums' two offshore homelands (the other is Yapan Island, off northwest coast of island of New Guinea.
panorama of Raja Ampat Islands
panorama of Raja Ampat Islands

 

Lowland ringtails accept altitudes up to 4,265.09 feet (1,300 meters). But their habitats actually begin at sea level. Their niches in fact can be found along the eastern and northern coasts of Papua New Guinea, on the east side of the southwest Pacific Ocean island of New Guinea. They also claim the northern and western coasts of Papua Indonesia, on the west side of the world's fourth-largest island. They do not count at all among the island's southern coastal fauna and flora. But they additionally do number among the wildlife on Indonesia's Salawati and Yapen Islands. In all cases, their bio-geographical distribution extends from the coast inwards until the terrain completes the transition from hills to mountains.

  

Lowland Ringtail Possum (Pseudochirulus canescens) range

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

 

Coastal vegetation abounds before the terrain shifts to hilly lowlands. Trees are what lowland ringtails seek:

  • Anisoptera;

  • Calophyllum;

  • Casuarina;

  • Terminalia.

Wooded lowlands contribute to lowland ringtail survival through:

  • Irregular, multi-tiered canopies from emergents and understories below the prevailing canopy;

  • Mixed climbers, epiphytes (with air-borne roots “upon another plant”), ferns, palms, and shrubs.

Hill forests follow alluvial forests as the island's terrain rolls upward. Surface vegetation joins with understories of open shrubs and sporadic palms to create closed, lower-lying canopies. Woody plants grow dense, stout and tall. Trees typically have mature heights of 164.04+ feet (50+ meters). The dominant stands typically involve species of:

  • Celtis;

  • Ficus;

  • Horsfieldia;

  • Myristica;

  • Pometia;

  • Terminalia.

Stands of 229.66-foot (70+-meter) Araucaria punctuate lowland forests. 

 

Southern Crowned Pigeon, endemic to both Australian and Indonesian segments of island of New Guinea:

overlaps with Lowland Ringtail Possum in southeastern Papua New Guinea
Southern Crowned Pigeon (Goura scheepmakeri)
Southern Crowned Pigeon (Goura scheepmakeri)

 

The wildlife associations of lowland ringtails all arise therefore in primary and secondary hill forests. Lowland ringtails generally attempt to elude predatory raptors and reptiles through the typical ringtail possum's actively avoiding:

  • Habitats invasions;

  • Territorial threats.

They count as neighbors the world's:

  • Biggest butterflies, Queen Alexandra's birdwings (Ornithoptera alexandrae);

  • Largest pigeons, Southern crowneds (Goura scheepmakeri);

  • Longest lizards, Salvadore's monitors (Varanus salvadorii);

  • Poisonous birds (Pitohui spp).

They have the possibility of overlapping in bio-geographical ranges with such fellow ring-tailed possums as:

  • Arfak Mountain ringtails (Pseudochirulus schlegeli);

  • D'Albertis' ringtails (Pseudochirops albertisii);

  • Golden green plush-coated ringtails (Pseudochirops corinnae);

  • Masked ringtails (Pseudochirulus larvatus);

  • Moss-forest painted ringtails (Pseudochirulus forbesi);

  • Reclusive ringtails (Pseudochirops coronatus).

 

Arfak Mountain ringtail possum, also known as Vogelkop ringtail possum (Pseudochirus schlegeli), overlaps in its limited range on northeastern Bird's Head Peninsula with wide-ranging Lowland Ringtail Possum:

illustration by Gustav Mützel (December 7, 1839 – October 29, 1893)
Wilhelm Peters and Giacomo Doria, "Enumerazione dei mammiferi" (1881), Tav. XII
Wilhelm Peters and Giacomo Doria, "Enumerazione dei mammiferi" (1881), Tav. XII

 

Common names often answer to such memory tags for visual identification as:

  • Bio-geographical distribution;

  • Physical features.

The common name lowland ringtail indeed appreciates the marsupial mammal's non-mountainous occurrences. The less frequent, more old-fashioned common name of hoary ringtail conjures up images of age and ghostliness through its synonymous associations with grey-white appearances and traits. It indeed describes the lowland ringtail's predominant coloration. Dark colors include:

  • Striping dividing the forehead and the length of the back;

  • The tail prehensilely (“graspingly”) slide-resistant on the underside and prettily ring-curling at the tip.

 

profile of Pseudochirulus canescens:

illustration by Spanish-Argentinian naturalist Ángel Cabrera y Latorre (February 19, 1879 - July 17, 1960)
Angel Cabrera, Genera Mammalium (1919), Plate XI
Angel Cabrera, Genera Mammalium (1919), Plate XI

 

Light colors involve:

  • Brown-tinged grey heads, limbs, and upper-sides;

  • Fuscous (grey-brown) ears whose bases are dramatically dark and faces whose front is strikingly striped;

  • Grey-based brownish-buff under-sides.   

 

English naturalist George Robert Waterhouse (March 6, 1810 - January 21, 1888) provided first official taxonomic description of Lowland Ringtail Possum in 1846:

1851 portrait by artist-lithographer Thomas Herbert Maguire (1821 – 1895); printed by M & N Hanhart
National Portrait Gallery, London
National Portrait Gallery, London

 

Scientists accept slight variations in lowland ringtail appearance and bio-geography. These differences contribute to trinomial (“three-name”) classifications beyond binomial (“two-name”) identifications. The current binomial categorization draws upon George Robert Waterhouse's (March 6, 1810 – January 21, 1888) first official taxonomic description in 1846, as:

  • A Natural History of the Mammalia publisher, 1846-;
  • Somers Town-born English naturalist.

It emphasizes the privotal structural features of:

  • “False little hands” (in the genus Pseudochirulus);

  • “Hound-like” impression (in the species canescens).

It currently honors as subspecies:

  • Pseudochirulus canescens avarus, P.c. dammermani, and P.c. gyrator (per Michael Rogers Oldfield Thomas [February 21, 1858 – June 16, 1929] in 1906, 1922, and 1904);

  • P.c. canescens (the nominate [“first-described”]).

Michael Rogers Oldfield Thomas: first official descriptions of all but one of Lowland Ringtail Possum subspecies ~

portrait bequeathed by Oldfield Thomas to London's Natural History Museum
oil on canvas by John Ernest Breun (1862-1921)
oil on canvas by John Ernest Breun (1862-1921)

 

Behavioral shifts never accompany bio-geographical and physical subtleties among subspecies. Lowland ringtails always apply:

  • Day-eliminated feces and night-foraged food (bark, flowers, foliage, fruits, invertebrates, vertebrates) to digesting, hindgut-fermenting, and vacating twice-over;

  • Forays to night-time arborealism;

  • Sleep to tree-based diurnalism.

With just 2 of 4 mammae functional, adult females deliver 1 – 2 offspring per litter during year-round breeding for:

  • Pouch-confinement and back-riding until weaning;

  • Quarters-sharing until maturity.

Matured offspring exhibit with:

  • Dentition: 6 incisors, 2 canines, 6 premolars, and 8 molars and 4 incisors, 6 premolars, and 8 molars respectively per upper and low jaws;

  • Head-and-body lengths: 7.87 – 9.06 inches (200 – 230 millimeters);

  • Tail lengths: 6.69 – 7.87 inches (170 – 200 millimeters).

 

Rich biodiversity of Lowland Ringtail Possum homeland:

Mount Bosavi's kilometre-deep (0.62 miles) crater yielded over 40 previously unidentified species for 5-week joint expedition of Oxford University, the London Zoo and the Smithsonian Institution, filmed by BBC Natural History Unit, in 2009
Mount Bosavi, Southern Highlands province, Papua New Guinea
Mount Bosavi, Southern Highlands province, Papua New Guinea

Conclusion

Coastal locations exude as much precariousness and stress as beauty and opportunity. Their wildlife generally face head-on:

  • Clashes between modernity and tradition;

  • Interfaces between urban- and wild-lands.

Lowland ringtails particularly face bio-geographical stresses which occur from the Fakfak Mountains in the northwest all the way to Milne Bay in the southeast. Their territorial range indeed follows the historic and present foci in the New Guinean archipelago's development for:

  • Eco-tourism;

  • Industrial-, residential-, and road-construction;

  • Logging;

  • Mining;

  • Plantation agriculture.

It includes overlaps with descendants of:

  • Pre-European settlement villagers;

  • 300 years of immigration.

Against both modern and traditional extremes, protected area status is effective except against:

  • Arrow-, bow-, club-, torch-, trap-wielding villagers over-hunting ceremonial flesh and fur;

  • Globally-warmed climate change.   

In Lowland Ringtail Possums' southeastern range on Bird's Tail Peninsula: "A piebald tribe: the Motu-Motu people of Hood's Bay, and a typical Kalo house ~ The piebald people are one of the mysteries of New Guinea, and their origin is unexplained."

“…the flooring of the dwelling-room begins at the bottom of the closed-in gable … within the thatch of flag-grass they actually have a fire on a mud hearth. The slanting pole is a ladder … In some cases they have little ladders for their dogs.”
A.E. Pratt, Two Years Among New Guinea Cannibals (1906), p. 169
A.E. Pratt, Two Years Among New Guinea Cannibals (1906), p. 169

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.

 

"The wireless topography of New Guinea: The natives shout their news from hill-top to hill-top, thus conveying it with amazing rapidity."

Human backdrop of Lowland Ringtail Possum environments: effective, interesting communication methods
A.E. Pratt, Two Years Among New Guinea Cannibals (1906), p. 149
A.E. Pratt, Two Years Among New Guinea Cannibals (1906), p. 149

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Lake Kutubu, at elevation of over 2625 feet (800 meters) above sea level in Southern Highlands province, homeland of Lowland Ringtail Possum:

Ramsar Convention-designated Wetland of International Significance in 1998; included in 2006 in tentatively listed Kikori River Basin - Great Papuan Plateau World Heritage Site
Lake Kutubu, Southern Highlands, Papua New Guinea
Lake Kutubu, Southern Highlands, Papua New Guinea
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Wall Mural ~ Fairy Basslets in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea: photo by Stuart Westmorland

spectacular marine flora -- Pseudanthias ssp. -- in Milne Bay, homeland of Lowland Ringtail Possum
Fairy Basslets in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea

Victoria Crowned Pigeon (Goura victoria): photo by John Cancalosi

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 - Ardea Wildlife Pets

Satellite Image of Hawooi and Kikori Deltas, Papua New Guinea:

Lowland Ringtail Possums' homeland around Gulf of Papua in southern Papua New Guinea
Satellite Image of Hawooi and Kikori Deltas, Papua New Guinea

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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