Possum scavenges an egg at a New Zealand pigeon/kereru nest
Image: Nga Manu images ©

Introduction

The possum is one of the greatest threats to our natural environment.

Description 

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. 

The threat 

Possums have a significant impact on many of New Zealand’s 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 ‘favourites’ such as rātā or kamahi trees, leading to an even greater impact on these species. 

In 1993, possums were filmed eating the eggs and chicks of kōkako and this evidence changed many people’s 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 kākāriki 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.

Evidence shows stoats and possums are eating kea. Researchers using nest-cameras have witnessed the gruesome reality inside defenceless kea nests invaded by stoats and possums in South Westland. 

You can help to control possums

Regular predator control will help to control possum numbers and get us closer to the Predator Free 2050 goal.

DOC's work

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. Possum management agencies

DOC commits resources to possum control at priority sites to ensure long-term survival of species and the ecosystems that support them.

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