Looks like an ANZAC biscuit, tastes like a protein bar: Bogong Bikkies help mountain pygmy-possums after fire



Zoos Victoria/Tim Bawden, Author provided

Marissa Parrott, University of Melbourne and Naomi Ezra Davis, University of Melbourne

Australia’s recent bushfires have razed over ten million hectares, and killed at least a billion animals. It’s likely countless more will die in the aftermath, as many species face starvation as the landscape slowly regenerates.

Even before the bushfires hit, we were working on supplementary food to help recover the critically endangered mountain pygmy-possum. They are seriously threatened by climate change, historic habitat destruction and more frequent intense fires.

Just months ago we landed on a recipe for Bogong Bikkies, nutritionally suitable baked biscuits that have the consistency of an ANZAC biscuit, taste a bit like a nutty gym protein bar and smell a little like Cheds crackers.

We never imagined our work would be needed so quickly – or urgently – but now our Bogong Bikkies are being deployed across the boulder fields of NSW, providing vital supplementary food to native species such as pygmy-possums, native bush rats and dusky antechinus.




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Hungry, hungry possums

Mountain pygmy-possums are the only Australian marsupial that hibernate every winter under snow, making it essential they build fat reserves before their long winter sleep. The main food source during their spring/summer breeding season is the migratory bogong moth.

However in 2017 and 2018 the billions of expected bogong moths largely failed to arrive, leaving many females underweight and unable to produce enough milk for their young. Due to a lack of food, 50-95% of females in monitored Victorian locations lost their entire litters.




Read more:
You can help track 4 billion bogong moths with your smartphone – and save pygmy possums from extinction


In response, Zoos Victoria’s Healesville Sanctuary proposed creating a new supplementary food that could be used in the wild to support possums and their young until moth numbers recover.

Ten years ago, we analysed bogong moths to determine the fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals required for a suitable breeding diet for possums in our captive breeding program.

While we have a successful diet for the possums in our care that includes nuts, insects, vegetables and a specially developed “bogong moth substitute”, the blend has the consistency of a soft caramel (or bogong moth abdomen) – not suitable for feeding in the wild. We needed a shelf-stable, long-lasting, nutritionally suitable food that could feed remote wild populations.

That’s the way the cookie crumbles

Throughout 2019, using our existing analyses of bogong moths, we worked with world experts in veterinary nutrition to develop Bogong Bikkies – nutritionally suitable baked biscuits for mountain pygmy-possums, and other species that live alongside them. We collaborated with Australian wildlife diet experts, Wombaroo, to have our new product commercially developed.

We then trialled the bikkies with the possums in our care at Healesville Sanctuary, so we could monitor whether the food was palatable or caused any health issues. It was a huge success. The possums liked the food, but happily ate other food too. This was exactly what we wanted: something that was completely safe and would be readily accepted, but not chosen over natural food sources.

Mountain Pygmy-possum mum and joeys.
Tim Bawden/Zoos Victoria., Author provided

Once satisfied our captive trials were a success, we had to find the best way to deliver food safely to possums in boulder fields in the wild. This meant buying or making 12 different feeder prototypes. Our local hardware store knew us all by name! We tested four feeders, most of which were designed and built on-site, and chose the most successful three for trials in the wild.

Working with Parks Victoria and the Victorian Mountain Pygmy-possum Recovery Team, we tested these three feeders at 20 stations deep in the Alpine National Park, monitored with remote infrared cameras.

Over the last few months, Zoos Victoria and Parks Victoria staff have been refilling feeders, changing camera batteries and analysing hundreds of thousands of images and videos. After months of work, watching wild mountain pygmy-possums, native bush rats and dusky antechinus visiting our feeders and eating the food was a triumph.

A possum feeder in the wild.
Zoos Victoria, Author provided

A raging inferno

Halfway through our research, some of the worst bushfires ever seen in Australia left habitats destroyed and our precious wildlife dead or starving. Victoria mountain pygmy-possum populations have so far not been directly impacted by fires this season, but the populations of northern Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales, were hard hit.

While the habitat was destroyed, we hoped some possums had survived deep in the boulder fields, as they have with previous fires. But surviving the initial fire is no help, if their environment and food sources have been so devastated that they can’t gain enough weight to hibernate before winter’s snow.

Within days of the January fires, we had packaged up our most successful feeder type, examples of our cooked bikkies, our best recipe and 30kg of Bogong Bikkie mix, and rushed it urgently to our NSW partners.

An infrared image showing a wild mountain pygmy-possum eating a Bogong Bikkie from a feeder.
Zoos Victoria, Author provided

Teams from the NSW government’s Saving Our Species and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service have now built and deployed 62 feeders and water stations in six boulder fields, baked batches of bikkies and started emergency feeding.

We’re thankful to have the food developed and research ready to assist. It is important to note, though, that such supplementary feeding is very intensive, and only appropriate for native species facing emergency situations, such as catastrophic fires.

If these bushfires teach us nothing else, it is the value of preparation, hard work and early funding to develop a range of conservation tools.

While we should all hope for the best, we must plan for the worst.


This article was co-authored Dr Kim Miller, Life Sciences Manager, Conservation and Research, at Healesville Sanctuary, Zoos Victoria, and Dr Leanne Wicker, Senior Veterinarian at Healesville Sanctuary, Zoos Victoria. The authors acknowledge Dr Linda Broome and the team from Biodiversity and Conservation (South East Branch) of the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment for their work protecting the Mountain Pygmy-possum.


This article was corrected to clarify the impact on the mountain pymy-possum populations of northern Kosciuszko National Park.The Conversation

Marissa Parrott, Reproductive Biologist, Wildlife Conservation & Science, Zoos Victoria, and Honorary Research Associate, BioSciences, University of Melbourne and Naomi Ezra Davis, Environmental Scientist – Fauna, Parks Victoria; Honorary Fellow, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You can help track 4 billion bogong moths with your smartphone – and save pygmy possums from extinction



Healesville Sanctuary, Werribee Open Range Zoo

Sally Sherwen, University of Melbourne and Therésa Jones, University of Melbourne

Each year, from September to mid-October, the tiny and very precious mountain pygmy-possums arise from their months of hibernation under the snow and begin feasting on billions of bogong moths that migrate from Queensland to Victoria’s alpine region.

But for the past two springs, moth numbers have collapsed from around 4.4 billion in alpine areas to an almost undetectable number of individuals. And the mountain pygmy-possums went hungry, dramatically affecting breeding success among the last remaining 2,000 that live in the wild.




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This year’s migration of bogong moths to the possums’ alpine home is crucial for the critically endangered mountain pygmy-possums. That’s why we’re asking you to do two simple things: turn off your lights at night, and if you see a bogong moth, take a picture.

What’s happened to the moths?

Bogong moths make an epic migration through Australia every spring.
Credit: Donald Hobern

We don’t know exactly why the moths are not making it to their summer alpine destination. It’s likely extreme drought, pesticides and changes in agricultural practices are all major factors. However, scientists believe that because moths use both the Earth’s magnetic field and visual cues on the horizon to navigate, light pollution from urban centres can confuse the moths and stall their journey.

Some of the greatest beacons on their path are Parliament House and Canberra’s bright surrounds. Both parliamentarians and the general public are being asked to turn unnecessary outdoor lights off from September 1 to October 31, as part of the Lights Off for Moths campaign.

Artificial night lighting has dramatically changed the nocturnal environment. In urban environments, the soft glow of moonlight is overpowered by bright streetlights, security lights and car headlamps. These light sources can be more than 1,000 times as bright as moonlight, and their biological impact is increasingly visible and widespread.

One of the most obvious impacts of artificial light at night is that it can attract animals (sometimes fatally). While a “moth to a flame” may be somewhat poetic, when one moth becomes hundreds, or potentially thousands, the ecological impact may be catastrophic. Current global lighting practices may be creating this very scenario.

Recent evidence links the presence of artificial light at night with large-scale deaths and shifts in nocturnal migration patterns in birds. In insects, artificial night lighting disrupts nocturnal pollination networks and is strongly linked with observed mass declines in insect (and particularly moth) populations.

No moths means hungry possums

When a species like bogong moths decline, it has huge ramifications. Insects in particular are vital pillars supporting whole ecosystems – without bees and other insect pollinators, for example, we risk the extinction of our flowering plants. Many birds, reptiles and mammals depend on insects as part of their diet.

Tiny mountain pygmy possums, like many other animals, depend on the annual bogong moth migration for food.
Tim Bawden

For mountain pygmy possums, the fatty, nutrient-rich bounty of bogong moths arrives right as they are waking up in the spring. They are one of the only Australian mammals that hibernate, and can spend up to seven months sleeping under the alpine snow.

The possums awake ravenously hungry, and devour the bogong moths to regain crucial fat stores. Without the moths there at the right time, the possums struggle to secure enough energy to breed successfully.

Snap that moth

Alongside the Lights Off for Moths campaign, Zoos Victoria has launched Moth Tracker, an app that allows Australians to photograph and log any potential sightings of migrating bogong moths.

Moth Tracker, which can be accessed through any laptop or smartphone, is adapted from the popular Southern Right Whale watching app in collaboration with Federation University and Victorian conversation network SWIFFT.

Bogong moths migrate from their winter breeding grounds throughout Queensland, New South Wales and western Victoria in search of cooler climates for the spring and summer in the Victorian and NSW Alpine regions where the mountain pygmy-possums live.

Before they become moths, the larvae look like tiny, shiny brown capsules and are commonly referred to as cutworm. Migratory bogong moths are dark brown, with two lighter spots on each wing. They are small, only about the length of a paper clip. During the day they’re often seen grouped together like roof tiles. At night, they are more active and flying around.

If you see a bogong moth (or something you think might be a bogong month), we need you to take a photograph and log the location, day and time with Moth Tracker. Scientists will use the data to determine whether any moths are making their way to the precious, and very hungry, possums that are just starting to wake from their winter hibernation.




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The Victorian Mountain Pygmy-possum Recovery Team, together with partner organisations, is also investigating options for interventions in the wild if needed. These may include a world-first airdropping of “bogong balls” to feed the hungry possums, as well as improving habitat connectivity and captive measures to support populations through the breeding season.

But with unnecessary outdoor lights switched off and citizen scientists looking out for bogong moths, there is still hope for the mountain pygmy-possums.The Conversation

Sally Sherwen, Director Wildlife Conservation and Science, Zoos Victoria, University of Melbourne and Therésa Jones, Lecturer in Evolution and Behaviour, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.