Masked Ringtail Possums (Pseudochirulus larvatus) in Papua Indonesia and Papua New Guinea

by DerdriuMarriner

Masks are amusing when donned for Carnival and parades. They can be dangerous when worn by assailants and robbers. But a mask is endearing on New Guinea’s masked ringtail possums.

What holds for animals cannot be assumed to hold for people and vice-versa. At the same time, what does not apply to animals cannot be rejected automatically as not applying to people and vice-versa.
• A case in point emerges with facially-masked animals and people.
• An animal’s facial mask exhibits a genetic configuration which produces predictable colors and patterns for specific effects.
• In contrast, a person’s mask expresses a conscious choice which oftentimes relates to getting the most out of Carnival, Halloween, and masquerades.

But sometimes mask-wearing indicates a deliberate opting for survival by altering or disguising one’s identity for heroic, mysterious or nefarious purposes.
• In that case, it overlaps with self-defensive reasons behind animals sporting masked faces.

Masked faces -- artificial or natural, faunal or human -- are prevalent on New Guinea.

Asaro Mud Man with unique clay mask, Kabiufa (~3 miles [5 km] from Asaro), Eastern Highlands, Papua New Guinea
Asaro Mud Man with unique clay mask, Kabiufa (~3 miles [5 km] from Asaro), Eastern Highlands, Papua New Guinea

 

Coloring always acts to enhance animal survival and promote animal sustainability. It assumes its particular expression to:

  • Blend with the environment;
  • Interact with light;
  • Warn of unpleasant odors, tastes or textures.

All three become relevant in regard to masked ringtail possums, whose colors:

  • Act as camouflage;
  • Imitate sylvan plays of light and shadow;
  • Portend male sternal gland scent releases.

For example, masked ringtail upper-sides always communicate grey-brown. The under-sides always convey white. Fine, super-sensory whiskers darken the lower face. A subtly dark stripe perfectly divides the head from the snout backwards. Red-brown frames facial contours. Brown-black functions as the color of the mask which encircles:

  • Big, dark-adapted, rounded eyes;
  • The bases of both light-fronted, small, super-sensitive ears.

 

Masked Ringtail Possum (Pseudochirulus larvatus) range

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

 

Masked ringtails are native to one southwest Pacific Ocean island and two Australasian countries. Two nations indeed claim sovereignty over the world’s fourth-largest island. Indonesia considers western New Guinea part of the Indonesian archipelago while the independent nation of Papua New Guinea exists on the island’s eastern half. Masked ringtails flourish much more in the east than the west. Their territory in fact follows the island’s east-to-west-running central highlands. Scientists indeed group masked ringtail populations into high-population centers within the Central Cordillera. They pinpoint:

  • Telefomin in the Bismarck Range;
  • The Kratke Range;
  • The Owen Stanley Range before Wau;
  • The Rawlinson Mountains in the Huon Peninsula’s Saruwaged Range;
  • The Star Mountains just over the border in the west.

 

Huon Peninsula: easternmost range of Masked Ringtail Possum in Papua New Guinea

Huon Peninsula in Papua New Guinea
Huon Peninsula in Papua New Guinea

 

The bio-geography of masked ringtails consequently correlates with monthly ranges of:

  • 65.28 inches (1,658.11 millimeters) concerning evapo-transpiration;
  • 66.00°F (18.89°C) for temperature;
  • 13.57 inches 344.6 millimeters) regarding precipitation.

It covers a total of 41,574.78 square miles (107,678.19 square kilometers), or less than one-fourth of Papua New Guinea’s total area and less than one-eighth of the entire island. It depends upon:

  • Subsurface geologies of the Southern Hemisphere’s deepest caves;
  • Surface geologies of igneous lavas, pyroclasts (“fire-fragmented”), and volcanics and of metamorphic sandstone and siltstone.

It draws in primary and secondary forests of:

  • Closer, denser, lower-canopied crowns on taller trees at elevations below 4,593.18 feet (1,400 meters);
  • More even and open, smaller-canopied crowns on shorter shrubs and trees higher up.

 

Owen Stanley Range: Masked Ringtail Possum homeland, shared with other ringtail possums

view of the Owen Stanley Range from Ower's Corner, 31 miles (50 km) east of Port Moresby
view of the Owen Stanley Range from Ower's Corner, 31 miles (50 km) east of Port Moresby

 

The wildlife associations of masked ringtail possums therefore acknowledge fauna and flora of moist lowland and montane forests. Masked ringtails are Owen Stanley Range neighbors to:

  • Eastern parotias (Parotia helenae) and streaked bowerbirds (Amblyornis subalaris);
  • Long-footed water rats (Leptomys elegans);
  • Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing butterflies (Ornithoptera alexandrae).

They become Huon Peninsula montane rainforest occupants with:

  • Huon astrapias (Astrapia rothschildi) and spangled honeyeaters (Melipotes ater);
  • Huon tree-frogs (Litoria dux);
  • Matschie’s tree-kangaroos (Dendrolagus matschiei).

They count among Bismarck Range co-residents:

  • Purple-spotted swallowtail butterflies (Graphium weiskei);
  • Telefomin cuscuses (Phalanger matanim);
  • Telefomin round-leaf bats (Hipposideros corynohyllus).

They create niches in the Papua Indonesia-Papua New Guinea-straddling Star Mountains with:

  • Goodfellow’s tree-kangaroos (Dendrolagus matschiei);
  • Macgregor’s giant ochre-winged honeyeaters (Macgregoria pulchra);
  • Papuan whipbirds (Androphobus viridis).

 

Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868–1937):

eccentric collector and naturalist who used his family fortune to amass a very large personal scientific collection, which became the Zoological Museum at Tring
c. 1910 oil on canvas by Joszi Arpad Koppay (March 15, 1857 - September 2, 1927) ~ National Portrait Gallery, London
c. 1910 oil on canvas by Joszi Arpad Koppay (March 15, 1857 - September 2, 1927) ~ National Portrait Gallery, London

 

Other possums accompany masked ringtails into the scientific classification of ring-tailed animals. Some of these Australian- and/or New Guinea-based fellow ringtail possums become part of nearby or overlapping wildlife associations with masked ringtails. Coppery (Pseudochirops cupreus), golden plush-coated (Pseudochirops corinnae), painted (Pseudochirulus forbesi), and pygmy (Pseudochirulus mayeri) ringtails can be grouped into the almost-neighbor and neighbor categories. The physical resemblance between masked ringtails and proximitous ringtail possums emerges as particularly strong in regard to painted ringtails in Papua New Guinea’s Bird’s Tail Peninsula. But behavioral similarities and bio-geographical preferences do not hold any stronger for masked and painted ringtails, whom the definite break between the Kratke Mountains westward and the Morobe provincial town of Wau eastward separates.

 

Golden Green Plush-Coated Ringtail Possum (Pseudochirus corinnae) overlaps in Papua New Guinea extent of its insular range with Masked Ringtail Possum.

illustration by J. Green
Annali del Museo civico di storia naturale di Genova, Ser. 2, Vol. XVIII (XXXVIII), Tav. II
Annali del Museo civico di storia naturale di Genova, Ser. 2, Vol. XVIII (XXXVIII), Tav. II

 

All of the masked ringtail’s ring-tailed possum neighbors are arboreal, cecal-fermenting (“intestinal pouch-processing”), coprophagous (“feces-eating”), folivorous (“leaf-eating”) nocturnalists. Masked ringtails indeed favor:

  • Braving branches and trunks thanks to opposable big toes and thumbs and prehensile (“grasping”) tails;
  • Getting food reversed into the caecum for digesting, eliminating, re-ingesting, and re-vacating;
  • Ingesting day-passed feces to maximize nutrition, sanitation, and security and leaving fewer night-passed wastes to thwart detection by predatory raptors and reptiles;
  • Maximizing nutritional intake by cutting and grinding food thanks to the upper jaw’s 6 incisors, 2 canines, 6 premolars, and 8 molars and the lower jaw’s 4 incisors, 6 premolars, and 8 molars.

They finalize all of the above-mentioned activities from day-occupied tree hollows and nests.

 

Mount Bosavi, Southern Highlands province, Papua New Guinea
Mount Bosavi, Southern Highlands province, Papua New Guinea

Conclusion: Masked presences

 

The first official masked ringtail taxonomy comes in 1911 from the industrious expertise of Professor Friedrich Förster and Lionel Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild (February 8, 1868 – August 27, 1937). Today’s scientists continue to identify as masked ringtail hallmarks:

  • “False little hands” (Pseudochirulus);
  • “Bewitched, enchanted, masked” faces (larvatus).

Other hallmarks emerge in ringtail possum records for dimorphism (“two body [sizes]”) and fecundity, with females fattened from:

  • Litter-delivering 1 – 2 newborns during year-round breeding;
  • Pouch- and back-carrying pre-adults.

All hallmarks merge to sustain active-avoiding:

  • Agro-industrialism;
  • Globally-warmed climate change;
  • Road-building;
  • Suburbanization.

They owe success to protected areas which ironically protect traditional masked ringtail predators: arrow-, bow-, club-, fire-, and trap-wielding villagers.

 

Dense forests may mask presence of Masked Ringtail Possums.

Dense forest on mountain spurs: Owen Stanley Range, Bulldog Track, Papua New Guinea
Dense forest on mountain spurs: Owen Stanley Range, Bulldog Track, Papua New Guinea

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.

 

 

Purple Spotted Swallowtail (Graphium weiskei), altitudinous endemic butterfly, at elevations of 4,500 to 8,000 feet (1,400 to 2,400 meters):

spectacular co-resident of Bismarck Range in Papua New Guinea's central highlands with Masked Ringtail Possums ~ illustration by Horace Knight, British Museum
H. Grose Smith and W.F. Kirby, Rhopalocera Exotica (1887 - 1892), Vol. I, Papilionidae: Plate XXI, between pp. 48 - 49
H. Grose Smith and W.F. Kirby, Rhopalocera Exotica (1887 - 1892), Vol. I, Papilionidae: Plate XXI, between pp. 48 - 49

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Bulldog Track, also known as Bulldog-Wau Road, located at western end of Owen Stanley Range:

isolated, rugged terrain typical of Masked Ringtail Possum homelands.
Ekuti Range, central Papua New Guinea. Bulldog Road rounds spur on middle right.
Ekuti Range, central Papua New Guinea. Bulldog Road rounds spur on middle right.
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Aerial view of villagers congregating in village square of remote mountain village, Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea: photo by Eric Lindgren

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

Highland Landscape Between Mount Hagen and Enya, Highlands, Papua New Guinea, Pacific: photo by Michael Runkel

Highland Landscape Between Mount Hagen and Enya, Highlands, Papua New Guinea, Pacific

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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DerdriuMarriner on 04/26/2014

VioletteRose, Me, too, I agree that these ringtail possums are interesting species indeed. Thank you for visiting and commenting.

VioletteRose on 04/26/2014

These are really interesting species, you have got great information about them. Thanks for sharing!

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