Pygmy Ringtail Possums (Pseudochirulus mayeri) in Papua Indonesia and Papua New Guinea

by DerdriuMarriner

The word pygmy comes from the ancient Greeks by way of classical Latin. It identifies the length from the elbow to the knuckles. That is about how long a pygmy ringtail possum is.

Not all ring-tailed animals answer to the name possum, and not all possums have ringed tails.
• But with or without ringtails, all possums are native to Australia and/or New Guinea.
• They all belong to the marsupial order Diprotodontia (“two forward-projecting teeth”), not the marsupial order Didelphimorphia (“two wombs” = divided womb) of opossums in the Americas.

Possums with ringtails can be differentiated from those without because of the way in which the tail curls terminally into a ring-like tip.
• According to current standards, scientists classify ringtail possums into 17 - 17+ species.
• Experts continue to identify what is shared and what is unique to ringtail possums.
• For example, the pygmy possum is the only pollen-eating ringtail possum.

Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868–1937): co-described Pygmy Ringtail Possum with John Guy Dollman (September 4, 1886 - March 13, 1942) ~

devoted collector and naturalist who amassed, thanks to the Rothschild family fortunes, a very large personal scientific collection, which became the Zoological Museum at Tring, Hertfordshire, South East England.
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

 

The common name, pygmy ringtail possum, accentuates the marsupial mammal’s diminutive size. The scientific name, Pseudochirulus mayeri, acknowledges the “false-hand,” human-like look -- from the combination of the Greek words ψευδής (pseudēs, “false”) and χειρό- (cheiró-, “hand”) with the Latin suffix -ulus (“little”) -- of big toes and thumbs respectively opposable to each rear-paw’s and each fore-paw’s clawed, grasping digits. It also attributes importance in 1932 by first official describers, Lionel Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild (February 8, 1868 – August 27, 1937) and Captain John Guy Dollman (September 4, 1886 – March 13, 1942), to specimens collected by Frederick William Shaw Mayer (September 26, 1899 – September 1, 1989) in the Moluccas and New Guinea between 1928 and 1931.

 

 

Pygmy Ringtail Possum (Pseudochirulus mayeri) range

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

 

But scientists accept a confluence of bio-geographical, dietary, ecological and physical factors when defining the hallmark features in the life cycles and natural histories of pygmy ringtails. Bio-geographically, pygmy ringtails cluster throughout Papua Indonesia’s and Papua New Guinea’s Central Cordillera highlands at:

  • Elevations of 3,937.01 – 13,779.53 feet (1,200 – 4,200 meters) above sea level;
  • Montane forests from Paniai Lakes in the west, through the west-east international border, to Mount Hagen in Western Highland Province in the east.

The specimen inspiring the Rothschild and Dollman descriptions comes from an elevation of 6,003.94 feet (1,830 meters) on the Weyland Range’s Gebroeders Mountains. Village anecdotes and specimens congregate around the Hellwig Mountains in the west and Mount Wilhelm in the east.

 

avian shape of New Guinea: from northern tip (Bird's Head Peninsula) to southern tip (Bird's Tail Peninsula)

Topographic map of New Guinea. Created with GMT from publicly released GLOBE data.
Topographic map of New Guinea. Created with GMT from publicly released GLOBE data.

 

Pygmy ringtails therefore become neighborly competitors to such folivores (“leaf-eaters”) as:

  • Coppery ringtails (Pseudochirops cupreus);
  • D’Albertis’ ringtails (Pseudochirops albertisii);
  • Masked ringtails (Pseudochirulus larvatus);
  • Plush-coated ringtails (Pseudochirops corinnae);
  • Weyland ringtails (Pseudochirulus caroli).

They cooperate in:

  • Avoiding conflict over life-sustaining resources and territorial ranges;
  • Coordinating nightly forages and forays through trees;
  • Eluding predatory raptors and reptiles;
  • Having enough arboreal homes without over-populating against survival or under-populating against security;
  • Including ceco-fermentation (“bacterial breakdown in the caecum [intestinal pouch]”) and coprophagy (“feces-eating”).

But pygmy ringtails generally do not lack for food since their niches are densely canopied, thickly vegetated mountain slopes. They in fact function as obligate pollinators since they add fungi- and pollen-eating to the ringtail possum’s typical herbivorousness (“plant-eating”).

 

Homeland of Golden Green Plush-Coated Ringtail Possum (Pseudochirus corinnae) overlaps with Pygmy 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

 

Ecologically, pygmy ringtails associate with trees that mature to:

  • 65.62 – 98.43 feet (20 – 30 meters) below 9,842.52 feet (3,000 meters);
  • 39.37 – 59.06 feet (12 – 18 meters) below 11,482.94 – 12,795.28 feet (3,500 – 3,900 meters);
  • 13.12 – 16.40 feet (4 -5 meters) in subalpine scrublands.

They choose montane primary forests 6,561,68 – 12,795.28 feet (2,000 – 3,900 meters) above sea level. Despite inhabiting agro-industrialist- and villager-monitored forests, they do not frequent regrown woodlands. They favor:

  • Guinea laurels (Cryptocarya) and oaks (Castanopsis);
  • Moss-covered Antarctic beeches (Nothofagus);
  • Pines (Araucaria) and podocarps (Dacrydium, Papuacedrus, Phyllocladus, Podocarpus);
  • Scrub shrubs and trees (Coprosma, Pittosporum, Xanthomyrtus).

Trees help pygmy ringtails elude:

  • Eastern grass-owls (Tyto longimembris);
  • Greater sooty owls (Tyto tenebricosa);
  • Papuan hawk-owls (Uroglaux dimorpha);
  • Rufous owls (Ninox rufa).

 

Eastern grass owl (Tyto longimembris), under synonym, Strix candida: predator of Pygmy Ringtail Possums ~

illustration by John Gould (September 14, 1804 - February 3, 1881); lithograph by Henry Constantine Richter (*1821 - March 16, 1902)
John Gould, The Birds of Asia (1850 - 1883), Vol. I, Plate 18
John Gould, The Birds of Asia (1850 - 1883), Vol. I, Plate 18

 

Sylvan habitats indeed blend with pygmy ringtails. Pygmy ringtails boast:

  • Beige to buff paws;
  • Blue-grey under-coat;
  • Dark whiskers;
  • Grey-brown upper-coat and upper-side to the prehensile (“grasping”) tail’s buff-colored, calloused, hairless under-side and ring-curling tip;
  • White-patched ear bases.

Despite identical coloring, mature head-body-tail lengths and weights diverge for:

  • Females: 12.99 – 15.75 inches (330 – 400 millimeters), 105 – 206 ounces (3.70 – 7.27 grams);
  • Males: 12.52 – 14.53 inches (318 – 369 millimeters), 4.05 – 6.28 ounces (115 – 178 grams).

Despite diminutiveness, pygmy ringtails exhibit:

  • Cutting, grinding mouthfuls of 6 incisors, 2 canine, 6 premolars, and 8 molars and of 4 incisors, 6 premolars and 8 molars per respectively upper and lower jaw.
  • The largest stomach volumes to body sizes of all ringtail possums.

 

Scrub-, shrub- and wood-lands allow pygmy ringtails to realize 4 – 5-year life cycles and natural histories. Pygmy ringtails build dreys (squirrel-like nests) of foliage, lichen, and moss in tree forks no more than 13.12 feet (4 meters) above root flares. Since pygmy ringtails never stray far from nests, female “consorts” center overlapping territories onto that of their yearly mate even though males never have territorial overlaps. After suspected gestation times of 9 – 13 days, they deliver 1 newborn per litter in year-round breeding seasons which peak in April and May. They raise their young:

  • In pouches, 4 – 5 months;
  • On backs, until weaning 1 – 2 months later;
  • In nests, until physical and sexual maturity 1 year later.

 

Mount Hagen, third largest city in Papua New Guinea and capital of Western Highlands province:

host for Mount Hagen Cultural Show, annual cultural show, one of largest annual cultural events in Papua New Guinea, showcasing regional, provincial, even national tribal dance groups
Mount Hagen Cultural Show 2008
Mount Hagen Cultural Show 2008

Conclusion: Four "Q's" of Pygmy Ringtail Possums' sustainability

 

Pygmy ringtails achieve sustainability by being:

  • Quarrelsome with nobody;
  • Querulous over nothing;
  • Quirky in forays;
  • Quotidian in appearance.

They commit to arboreal, nocturnal, solitary lives in extended families within overlapping terrains. They communicate by:

  • Alarmed screeches and nostalgic twitters by pre-adults;
  • Clawed and toothed messages on trunks;
  • Fecal and pheromonal smells by all and sternal gland secretions by males;
  • Touch.

They epitomize successful pest-controlling, pollination-facilitating, seed-dispersing, and vegetation-monitoring environmentalism. They generally find ways to nip ambient, predatory and rival threats from intruding on home and territorial ranges. The exception is the wildland-urban interface of:

  • Agro-industrialism;
  • Globally-warming climate change;
  • Mining;
  • Over-hunting;
  • Suburbanization.

But protected areas, scientific research, and worldwide environmentalism weight odds in favor of pygmy ringtail sustainability.

 

Mount Hagen Cultural Show:

medley of modernity and tradition increases tourism in proximity to little known homelands of endemic species such as ringtail possums
Mount Hagen Culture Show 2013
Mount Hagen Culture Show 2013

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.

 

Near-threatened Ribbon-tailed Astrapia, also known as Shaw Mayer's Astrapia:

along with Pygmy Ringtail Possums, among New Guinea's endemic fauna commemorating avid specimen collector Frederick William Shaw Mayer MBE (26 September 1899 – 1 September 1989)
Ribbon-tailed Astrapia (Astrapia mayeri) on Schefflera sp.
Ribbon-tailed Astrapia (Astrapia mayeri) on Schefflera sp.

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Papua New Guinea's cloud-surfing Mount Hagen, at elevation of 5,502 feet (1,677 meters), is in Wahgi Valley of Western Highlands.

Wahgi Valley, Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea
Wahgi Valley, Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

The Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus), with huge range from North and South America to Australasia (Australia, New Zealand, island of New Guinea, and neighbouring islands), is known as "The Wanderer" in Australia: photo by Jim Zipp ~

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

Australasia (Australia, New Zealand, the island of New Guinea, and neighbouring islands in Pacific Ocean)

Earth

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 04/13/2014

Kathleen, Me, too, I especially appreciate drawings by J. Green. I agree that the fur looks realistic, with such a plush coat and its sheen.

KathleenDuffy on 04/12/2014

What beautiful drawings - especially the one by J. Green. The fur is so realistic. Another lovely article.

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