why were possums introduced to new zealand
The common brushtail possum,
Trichosurus vulpecula, was first introduced to New Zealand from Australia in 1837 to establish a fur trade. This release was unsuccessful and a second release 20 years later at the same Southland location was required for them to establish. The possum has a thick, bushy tail, thick body fur, a pointed snout and large, pointed ears. There are two colour forms of the species - grey and black, with many variations in appearance. Possums can walk, jump and bound and its prehensile tail helps it move around tree branches. The size and weight of possums varies across New Zealand. Typically, adult possums are 65 to 95 cm long and weigh 1. 5 to 5 kg. Possums are nocturnal and can live anywhere where there is shelter and a varied food supply. They are now widespread across most of New Zealand. The main habitat is forest, and possum densities can be particularly high in podocarp-broadleaf forests. Margins where forest meets pasture are also popular habitat and support very dense populations. Possums have a significant impact on many of New Zealandвs natural ecosystems. They occur in high numbers and their own predators, such as feral cats, do not have much effect on controlling possum population size. Leaves are the main part of their diet, but possums are opportunistic omnivores. They eat buds, flowers, fruit/berries and nectar, which means they compete with native birds and reptiles for food sources. The growth and life-cycle of a tree or plant is significantly affected when all parts of it are eaten. Possums also have вfavouritesв such as rДtД or kamahi trees, leading to an even greater impact on these species.
In 1993, possums were filmed eating the eggs and chicks of kЕkako and this evidence changed many peopleвs views of their threat to wildlife. They eat invertebrates, including weta, and are significant predators of New Zealand land snails such as Powelliphanta. They often occupy holes in tree trunks for their nests which would otherwise be used by nesting birds such as kДkДriki and saddlebacks. Dairy and deer farmers have the added worry of possums spreading bovine tuberculosis. The value of economic loss in primary production for damage and control of possums is in the tens of millions. Researchers using nest-cameras have witnessed the gruesome reality inside defenceless kea nests invaded by stoats and possums in South Westland. Regular predator control will help to control possum numbers and get us closer to the goal. DOC is charged with the care of New Zealand's native plants and wildlife. The survival of whole ecosystems is affected by the possum. We are one of the agencies that manage possum control - other agencies include TBfree New Zealand, regional councils and the Ministry for Primary Industries. DOC commits resources to possum control at priority sites to ensure long-term survival of species and the ecosystems that support them. It is a fact that the exotic introduced species of Australian Brushtail Possum is a major ecological threat in New Zealand. Rats and stoats are also major introduced predators in the New Zealand bush. By investing in a possum fur product you are contributing to the survival and regeneration of the unique native New Zealand forest, birds and insect species, many of whom are now threatened by extinction.
Because of its long isolation from the rest of the world, New Zealand has extraordinary and unique flora and fauna. About 80% of New Zealand s flora is endemic, meaning that it is found only in New Zealand. Many of our native birds have become flightless leaving them vulnerable to introduced predators. The possum has no natural predators in New Zealand to keep their numbers down naturally like they do in their native Australia. Unchecked they continue to breed and numbers are escalating out of control every year. Some New Zealand broad leaf tree species are absolute delicacies for possums - and these same species are also some of the countries most endangered. Possums will seek out their favourite food ahead of other species and eat them out to extinction stripping entire trees bare of leaves so that they die. This leads to competition for food with native forest birds, changes in forest composition and eventually causes forest canopy collapse. It was recently discovered that the supposedly vegetarian possum also eats native birds eggs, baby chicks and native insects. So, as well as destroying our native birds habitat and food sources, they prey on eggs and chicks of native New Zealand bird species like the Tui, Kereru, and the endangered Kokako. The predation of bird eggs and chicks has led them to be referred to as reluctant folivores, meaning that they eat foliage to survive but prefer other foods in their diet as well.
It is estimated that there are approximately 30-40 million possums in New Zealand, and they devour nearly 8 million tonnes of vegetation annually. The New Zealand Department of Conservation and National Possum Control Agencies are trying to keep possum numbers under control by declaring possums a pest and encouraging their eradication. Possums are not hunted specifically for their fur; the fur is a by-product of the huge effort to save the New Zealand environment and native species. The New Zealand Government spends eighty million dollars a year on possum control. Most possums killed by the New Zealand Government using poison are left in the bush to rot and this natural resource is wasted. Possums are known carriers of bovine tuberculosis, which provides a major threat to the New Zealand dairy, beef and deer farming industries. Over the last five years, possum control programmes have been the main driver of a 60% reduction in TB levels in New Zealand s cattle and deer herds. A very small amount of possum meat is used to make cat and dog food (sourced from poison and TB free areas), and in general they are not currently eaten by people in New Zealand very often. You will probably not find it on a restaurant menu. Some possum meat sourced from strictly controlled areas has been exported to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia where it is known as the delicacy Kiwi Bear. The laws controlling the use of possum meat have recently been changed, although they are still subject to strict conditions.
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