‘Igot the spotlight on it, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck’. One night in 1961, 22-year-old Eric Wilkinson saw something amazing. Something that has been described as both a ‘Holy Grail’ and a ‘sasquatch' - something that had not been seen for more than half a century. He had just seen - a possum!
That may not sound that exciting at first, but this possum, a Leadbeater’s possum, was supposed to be extinct. This tiny marsupial, weighing about half as much as a can of coke, was somewhat of an icon to the people of Victoria, Australia. It was one of the first mammals in the area to be found by western scientists in 1867, and they even honoured it by naming it after John Leadbeater, the National Museum of Victoria’s famous taxidermist (while this might now seem strange, back then animal stuffing was still an evolving science and a good taxidermist was a real treasure).
Extinct or not extinct? That is the question
After 1867, however, the possum’s numbers declined, hit hard by deforestation and industrialisation. By 1921, this local treasure had been declared extinct.
A mere ten years later, however, in 1931, there came a clue that the possum might still be alive. A curator of mammals at the National Museum of Victoria, Charles Brazenor, found a misidentified stuffed animal that was in fact a Leadbeater’s possum, proving it had been wandering around quite recently.
And so Charles started a mini-crusade to find the possum, travelling all over Victoria in his search for the long brushlike-tailed marsupial. His searches were unsuccessful however, and after a failed appeal in a public magazine to report any sightings, he began to feel that the possum had really gone. As the years went by, he got promoted through the Museum, eventually becoming Director and slowly letting go of his dream of finding the possum.
In 1960, the Leadbeater’s possum was once again pronounced well and truly extinct, descending into myth and mystery, a relic of a past Victoria.
A glint in the darkness – the possum is rediscovered
What Charles didn’t bank on, however, was the keenness of the next generation - little eight-year old Eric Wilkinson was among those who read his appeal to the public to report any sightings of the possum. Eric remembered the article all the way through his teenage years and into his adult life so that in 1961, as a fossil assistant working in the same museum as Charles, he still remembered the tale of this lost marsupial.
Because of that article, he understood the significance of what he saw one night in 1961. Eric was out with some friends spotlighting in Cumberland Valley, less than two hour-drive away from Melbourne, shining high-powered lights into the night to make animals’ eyes pop out of the darkness. As they shone their lights into the forest, they thought they saw a tiny animal with a particularly long and thin brushy tail – Eric recognised it as a Leadbeater’s possum! They couldn’t quite believe it though, and soon afterwards packed up to head back without seeing any more possums’ eyes glint in the darkness.
As Eric drove back home, he was surprised by what he thought was a nightjar, a local bird, swooping quickly in front of his car. He stopped out of curiosity to shine a light after it, but instead of the nightjar he saw what he was now certain was another Leadbeater’s possum!
This second sighting proved it – the Leadbeater’s possum was alive. Eric knew, however, that he needed evidence, as nobody would really believe a young fossil assistant if he started claiming that he had seen the 'sasquatch' of Victoria. A few days later, he went back, returning in the dead of night to take the first ever pictures of a living Leadbeater's possum.
The official return of the possum
It took him about 10 days to develop the film, and we can only imagine how nerve-wracking those 10 days were. Here was his chance to answer Charles Brazenor’s appeal of 15 years ago, his chance to bring back the Leadbeater’s possum to the world, and it all depended on a night time flash photo. The photos were eventually developed and Eric excitedly asked Charles Brazenor for a meeting.
Eric went to that meeting clutching his photos in eager fright. He sat there in front of his boss, this eminent scientist who had been looking for the possum for decades, offering proof that he, a young whippersnapper, had found it by accident. Charles inspected the photos from all angles, holding them up to the light before finally launching into a lecture on the unreliability of photos. Eric’s photos, he maintained, were no proof, and Eric left the Director’s office dismayed.
But Charles must have thought there was something more to the photos, for he later authorised Eric to go on a trip to look for a specimen with John Coventry, an assistant in the mammal section and probably the best marksman in the Museum. They went back to the sighting spot and after a few nights camped out in the field, John obtained a Leadbeater’s possum! When the possum was presented to Charles, he apparently gave a somewhat begrudging ‘well, you might have been right after all’.
Finding the Leadbeater's possum was a defining moment of Eric’s life, and when he fell in love later that year he brought his future wife out with him to spotlight the possum.
A community gathers to save the possum
The Leadbeater's possum still lives in the central highlands of Victoria, though they are considered endangered. They are a delicate species, nesting in the hollows of old trees, but many of these old trees have been cut down. To make matters worse, bushfires tore through Victoria in 2009, destroying about 40% of the possums’ habitat and halving the possum’s wild population. There are now thought to be only about 1,500 Leadbeater’s possums left in the wild.
But the people of Victoria are not going to let it go extinct without a fight. Volunteers have set up nestboxes for the possum, monitoring them and providing them with shelter and food, sometimes even having to ski through the snow to reach them! There are also captive breeding programmes, ensuring that there is a safe population that can’t be harmed by fires and deforestation. With all this effort and commitment, we can hope that the Leadbeater's possum will never again be declared extinct.
- Edge of Existence Programme. 2016. Leadbeater's Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri). http://www.edgeofexistence.org/mammals/species_info.php?id=54
- Macfarlane et al. 1997. Leadbeater's Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) Recovery Plan, Department of Natural Resources and Environment Victoria http://www.environment.gov.au/resource/leadbeaters-possum-gymnobelideus-leadbeateri-recovery-plan
- Arkive.org. 2016. Leadbeater's Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri). http://www.arkive.org/leadbeaters-possum/gymnobelideus-leadbeateri/
- Wilkinson, H.E. 1961 The rediscovery of Leadbeater's Possum. Victorian Naturalist, 78: 97-102.
- Bendel, S. 2013. From 'forgotten' to 'flagship': Getting Leadbeater's Possum back into the spotlight. Victorian Naturalist, 130 (4), 174-177.