The search for the Brush-tailed Phascogale

Mason Crane

The Brush-tailed Phascogale is a rat-sized carnivorous marsupial in the same family as antechinus, quoll and Tasmania devils. They are scansorial which means they can forage both on the ground and in the trees. Found in all Australian states except Tasmania, the species has a wide but very fragmented distribution. It is considered threatened in many regions and in many cases locally extinct. 

The Brush-tailed Phascogale (Phascogale tapoatafa), with it’s distinctive black brushy tail (Photo: Esther Beaton)

The Brush-tailed Phascogale has a wide and patchy distribution. Map based on records, Atlas of Living Australia (Atlas of Living Australia Accessed 26 February 2016) 

Within New South Wales, Brush-tailed Phascogale are listed as vulnerable. In the South West Slopes of NSW there has been no confirmed sightings of this animal since the late 1800s, when a road kill phascogale was picked up on the Olympic Highway near Henty. Occasional unconfirmed sightings have been reported by individuals, but no hard evidence has been presented.

A typical nestbox (often used by Phascogales elsewhere) and the type of boxes the positive hair samples were collected from in the South West Slopes.

From 2010 to 2015, our team at the Australian National University was contracted to monitor 334 nestboxes of various designs, as part of works associated with the Hume Highway duplication, between Coolac (north of Gundagai) and Albury. Interestingly, we found seven nestboxes to contain nests or scats similar to that of a phascogale, and obtained positive phascogale hair samples from two of the boxes. But this alone isn't enough to confirm the species in the region! While phascogales are common users of nestboxes in areas they exist, we treated these records with some skepticism, given the lack of confirmed sightings over the past 100 years.

With the help of remote sensor cameras and some delicious sardine and honey baits we set out to catch this critter on film (or rather, a digital memory card).  

Baiting the camera trap. Spraying the tree with diluted honey after nailing the perforated sardine tin to the tree.

Baited camera stations were set up in the vicinity of where possible phascogale hairs or scats were detected. Travelling Stock Reserves, and adjacent roadside’s presented the best quality habitat, and the best chance for phascogale. Six motion sensor cameras (UV-565 HD 12MP “black ops” UOVision for you tech-nerds) were set up for a minimum of three nights facing bait stations. Bait station included a perforated tin of sardines nailed to a tree and saturating the tree in honey solution. This was carried out in Winter and again in Spring.

Camera trap for Brush-tail Phascogale, set and ready for action.

Three days after set up, the camera’s memory cards are checked…

Not a phascogale, but a Yellow-footed Antechinus

Not a phascogale but a Brush-tailed Possum (with bub)

Not a phascogale, but a Squirrel Glider

Unfortunately, no phascogales were detected with the baited camera stations over 130 trap nights. Despite this, a range of fauna including great images of Squirrel Gliders (which are listed as Vulnerable in NSW) were also captured. Common Brush-tailed possums and Yellow-footed Antechinus were commonly detected, and even a goanna turned up! (see Table 1).

Not a phascogale but a goanna!

Failure to record Brush-tailed Phascogale in five years of effort, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Threatened species can often surprise us by turning up in unexpected places. Recently a Regent Honeyeater was seen at Narrandera which is on the edge of the NSW South West Slopes.

It had been nearly a hundred years since a Regent Honeyeater was seen near there! Click here to read more about this great sighting.

So the search goes on! If anyone has records of Brush-tailed Phascogale in the South West Slopes of NSW, or actually, anywhere across south eastern Australia, please contact us, or your local Parks and Wildlife service.


Table 1: Animal detections at baited camera stations. CBP= Common Brush-tailed Possum, SqG= Squirrel Glider, YFA= Yellow-footed Antechinus, RF= Red Fox, LM= Lace Monitor, WTT= White-throated Treecreeper, GST= Grey Shrike Thrush, BR= Black Rat, BT= Brown Treecreeper, NM= Noisy Miner.