Reclusive Ringtail Possum (Pseudochirops coronatus): Green Marsupial of Indonesian New Guinea

by DerdriuMarriner

Not all tropical forests are lush green. Silver-green in fact dominates on forested mountain slopes. So it is a smart color for New Guinea’s shy, smart reclusive ringtail possum.

Reclusive ringtail possums epitomize what is called the active avoidance response to interactions and situations.
• For example, they find unobtrusive niches in which to avoid competitors and elude predators within their forested, tropical mountain habitats.
• The behavior is successful in that reclusive ringtail possums tend not to be observed by researchers other than as skulls and specimens in natural history museum collections.

But at the same time, it is unsuccessful in that reclusive ringtail possums do not fight back with grinding teeth and sharp claws.
• Body coloring that imitates the forest’s browns, greens and greys as well as agile scurrying and sharp senses may work against predatory raptors and reptiles.
• They remain ineffective against agro-industrialists and hunters.

Reclusive Ringtail Possum (Pseudochirops coronatus) range

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

 

The Arfak Mountains are home to reclusive ringtail possums. They comprise the eastern portion of a generally continuous mountain chain whose northwestern portion is called the Tamrau Mountains. The Tamrau Mountains continue to be the lesser known and surveyed of the two. In contrast and despite rugged remoteness, the Arfak range -- whose name means “interior” in the coastally-based Biak language -- draws explorers and researchers since Dutch colonization throughout the west of the southwest Pacific island of New Guinea, 1682 – 1962. Both mountains get high marks for eco-diversity although knowledge of Arfak’s wildlife benefits from Odoardo Beccari’s (November 16, 1843 – October 25, 1920) and Luigi Maria D’Albertis’ (November 21, 1841 – September 2, 1901) expeditions in 1872.

 

Odoardo Beccari, ca. 1870 portrait, about 2 years before his joint expedition to New Guinea in 1872 with Luigi d'Albertis

Collection National Botanic Garden of Belgium
Collection National Botanic Garden of Belgium

 

The Vogelkop (“Bird’s Head”) Peninsula claims both the Arfak and Tamrau Mountains. It complements Bird’s Tail (Vogelstaart) Peninsula of southeasternmost New Guinea. It consists of mountainous, tropical rainforests whose surface geology involves:

  • Limestone: Fakfak and Kumawa Mountains;
  • Limestone, sandstone, volcanics: Arfak and Tamrau Mountains;
  • Metamorphic: Wandamen-Wondiwoi Mountains.

Its mountain soils encourage growth of:

  • Guinea white oak (Castanopsis acuminatissima);
  • Moss-covered Antarctic beech (Nothofagus stylosa, womersleyi);
  • New Guinea cypress (Papuacedrus papuana var. arfakensis) and podocarps (Dacrydium novo-guineense; Dacrycarpus cinctus, compactus, expansus, imbricatus; Podocarpus spathoides).

 

foliage of Dacrycarpus imbricatus, a tall conifer, reaching heights of 130 feet (40 meters):

Reclusive ringtail possums' synecological flora
Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), Kepong, peninsular Malaysia central west coast
Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), Kepong, peninsular Malaysia central west coast

 

It falls within the following UNEP-WCMC (United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre) protected areas:

  • Gunung Meja;
  • Jamursba-Mandi;
  • Mingima;
  • Mubrani Kaironi;
  • Pegunungan Arfak;
  • Pegunungan Fakfak;
  • Pegunungan Kumawa;
  • Pegunungan Tamrau Selatan;
  • Pegunungan Tamrau Utara;
  • Wondiwoi.

 

D'Albertis' ringtail possum (Pseudochirops albertisii): peaceful coexistence in overlapping habitats with Reclusive ringtails and Vogelkop ringtails

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

 

Undisturbed primary forests and scrublands at altitudes between 3,280.84 and 6,561.68 feet (1,000 and 2,000 meters) above sea level are the habitats at which reclusive ringtails are adapted to live. Reclusive ringtails avoid competition over food, home ranges, and shelter with such fellow possums as:

  • D’Albertis’ ringtails (Pseudochirops albertisii), at heights of 3,280.84 – 6,233.59 feet (1,000 – 1,900 meters) above sea level;
  • Vogelkop ringtails (Pseudochirulus schlegeli), at heights of 2,460.63 – 6,233.59 feet (750 – 1,900 meters) above sea level.

 

Vogelkop ringtail possum (Pseudochirus schlegeli): peaceful coexistence in overlapping habitats with D'Albertis' ringtails and Reclusive ringtails

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

 

They most likely follow folivorous (“leaf-eating”) diets, which may be supplemented by consumption of:

  • Bark;
  • Flowers;
  • Fruits;
  • Sap.

Each reclusive ringtail possum has a large, sacculated caecum (“pouch”) for re-ingesting feces to maximize access to:

  • Energy;
  • Nutrients, especially nitrogen;
  • Water.

 

Coprophagy -- whose etymology combines the ancient Greek words κόπρος (copros, “feces”) and φαγεῖν (phagein, “to eat”) -- allows its practitioners to:

  • Maximize nutrition, sanitation, and security;
  • Minimize clean-up, detection, and energy.

It contributes to the reclusive ringtail’s environmental role as:

  • Pest-controllers;
  • Resource-recyclers;
  • Seed-dispersers;
  • Vegetation-monitors;
  • Water-conservers.

It also enables females to:

  • Bulk up for yearly commitments to breeding, delivering, and raising offspring from pouch-living, through maternal back-riding and nest-sharing, to physical and sexual emancipation;
  • Decrease foraging during extreme weather, hunting seasons, and predatory incursions.

It involves 4 – 8+ hours of:

  • Passing food through the digestive tract;
  • Reversing from the large intestine for caeco-bacterial fermentation and simple sugar production;
  • Vacating while sleeping days for nightly re-ingesting and re-vacating.

 

Michael Rogers Oldfield Thomas: first official description of Reclusive ringtail possum

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)

 

Details regarding reclusive ringtail life cycles baffle scientists because of the possum’s savvy wariness. Experts therefore base what is hypothesized or known from:

  • 5 locales;
  • 3 specimens;
  • Trophy skulls;
  • Village anecdotes.

The first official descriptions and scientific identifications indeed date back to 1897, with one of the 1,000+ publications and 2,000+ taxonomies effectuated by Millbrook-born British zoologist Michael Rogers Oldfield Thomas (February 21, 1858 – June 16, 1929). Current classifications still emphasize:

  • Cephally-located, coronet-patterned markings unique to the reclusive ringtail’s head;
  • Hallux (“big toe”) and pollex (“big toe”) respectively opposable to each clawed, flat-soled rear-paw and flat-palmed fore-paw.

These characteristics, not color, function as morphological (“structural”) identifiers of Pseudochirops coronatus, the “(human-like) false-handed,” “coronet (bearing)” reclusive ringtail possum.

 

Green ringtail possum (Pseudochirops archeri): coloring similar to silver-greenness of Reclusive ringtails

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

 

And yet color assumes dominance in reclusive ringtail survival and sustainability. Reclusive ringtails blend with scrubby, woody habitats -- not by the copper- or gold-greenness of coppery (Pseudochirops cupreus) or golden plush-coated (Pseudochirops corinnae) ringtails -- but by silver-greenness similar to that of D’Albertis’ (Pseudochirops dalbertisii) and green (Pseudochirops archeri) ringtails. The greenness comes -- not from pigmentation -- but from sunlight traversing tree canopies covering 60 – 80% of the sky to warm grizzled, intermingled, interspersed, and mottled cephal (“head”) and corporeal (“body”) fur colors. Reclusive ringtails exhibit:

  • Big, dark, rounded eyes;
  • Black-brown-grey upper-sides;
  • Black-brown-white lower-sides;
  • Darkened limbs;
  • Prehensile (“grasping”) tail tapering from a furry base, through a slide-resistant under-side, to a hairless, ring-curled tip;
  • Small ears.

 

Bird's Head Peninsula: Reclusive ringtail possum's native landscape

Bird's Head (Indonesian: Kepala Burung, Dutch: Vogelkop) Peninsula, northwestern New Guinea
Bird's Head (Indonesian: Kepala Burung, Dutch: Vogelkop) Peninsula, northwestern New Guinea

Conclusion: Sustainable habitats on Vogelkop's Arfak Mountains for Reclusive Ringtails, super shy light sleepers

 

Reclusive ringtails do not defend themselves with:

  • Clawed digits;
  • Grasping tail, thumbs and toes;
  • Teeth, with 6 incisors, 2 canines, 6 premolars, and 8 molars and with 4 incisors, 6 premolars, and 8 molars per respectively upper and lower jaws.

With adult weights of 3.31 pounds (1.5 kilograms), they employ:

  • Scaling branches, forks and roots;
  • Sharing resources with competitors;
  • Sleeping lightly, with one eye opening regularly.

But active avoidance ends ineffectively against:

  • Agro-industrialists reconfiguring wildland-urban interfaces;
  • Hatam-, Meyah-, and Sougb-speaking villagers using arrows, bows, fires, and traps and welcoming flesh and fur for clothing, food, and instruments.

Protected homelands, scientific research, and visitor support therefore must keep Vogelkop’s Arfak Mountains safe for super-secretive, super-shy reclusive ringtail possums.

 

Arfak Astrapia (Astrapia nigra) ~ as with Reclusive ringtails, an endemic species to the Arfak Mountains, although, unlike Reclusive ringtails, the gorgeous bird enjoys health conservation status:

illustration by John Gould (September 14, 1804 – February 3, 1881)
John Gould, The birds of New Guinea and the adjacent Papuan Islands, Vol. I.
John Gould, The birds of New Guinea and the adjacent Papuan Islands, Vol. I.

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.

 

Rendani Airport, large and busy airport, southwest of Manokwari, capital of West Papua province, Bird's Head Peninsula:

proximity to rugged Arfak Mountains, Reclusive ringtail possums' native landscape
Manokwari's Rendani Airport
Manokwari's Rendani Airport

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halcyon image of Manokwari on Bird's Head Peninsula:

Manokwari is visible from summit of Pegunungan Arfak (9,646 feet / 2,940 meters), in Arfak Mountains, Reclusive ringtail possums' rugged homeland.
Manokwari: West Papua's provincial capital, busy port, major tourist destination on Dore Bay, southwest Pacific Ocean
Manokwari: West Papua's provincial capital, busy port, major tourist destination on Dore Bay, southwest Pacific Ocean
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

The island of New Guinea enjoys a worldwide reputation for fine coffee:

Rugged interior of Bird's Head Peninsula is considered an excellent location for cocoa and coffee cultivation.
Organic New Guinea Medium Roast, Whole Bean, 16 Ounce Bag

A Male Arfak Astrapia Bird of Paradise Perches on a Tree Branch: photo by Tim Laman

A Male Arfak Astrapia Bird of Paradise Perches on a Tree Branch

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: 08/12/2014, DerdriuMarriner
 
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