Journal of Comparative Physiology B

, Volume 182, Issue 4, pp 469–489 | Cite as

The physiology of the honey possum, Tarsipes rostratus, a small marsupial with a suite of highly specialised characters: a review

  • Don Bradshaw
  • Felicity Bradshaw


Field and laboratory studies of the iconic nectarivorous and ‘pollenivorous’ honey possum, Tarsipes rostratus, are reviewed with the aim of identifying aspects of its physiology that are as yet poorly understood and needed to implement management strategies for its long-term conservation. Dietary specialisations include the loss of teeth, a modified gut with a high rate of passage, exceptionally low minimum nitrogen requirements, an apparently high basal metabolic rate and a permanently polyuric kidney. In contrast, its reproductive physiology is plesiomorphic, combining aspects such as a post-partum oestrus, embryonic diapause, photoperiodicity and extended maternal care that are usually separate characteristics of other marsupial groups. In common with a number of other marsupials, the honey possum has the potential for trichromatic colour vision and has been the subject of several studies attempting to correlate visual quality with ecological realities. Field physiological studies have established its high rates of nectar and pollen intake needed to maintain energy balance and highlight the need for a constant intake from floral sources. Early allometric studies suggesting that the honey possum’s relatively low reproductive rate may be linked to a diet limited in protein have not been supported and nitrogen intakes in the field exceed by a factor of 10 the animal’s basic requirements for balance. Measurements of rates of protein turnover in field-caught lactating females suggest that they divert nitrogen from the protein pool to milk production by reducing rates of degradation, rather than by increasing rates of synthesis of protein. Although not yet an endangered species, the honey possum’s habitat has been drastically reduced since European occupation of Australia and future-targeted research on the animal’s unique physiology and habitat linkage is needed that can be translated into effective management practices. Only then will its long-term survival be assured.


Tarsipes Physiology Reproduction 



Basal metabolic rate


Standard metabolic rate


Field metabolic rate

Tb min

Minimal body temperature in torpor


Biological elimination rate


Doubly labelled water method




Bovine pancreatic polypeptide


Mean retention time


Scott National Park


Fitzgerald River National Park


Offspring production rate




Maintenance nitrogen requirements


Metabolic faecal nitrogen


Endogenous urinary nitrogen excretion


Biological value


Metabolic water production


Truly digestible nitrogen intake


Progesterone metabolites (progestagens)




Clearance of urea


Clearance of inulin (=GFR)


Clearance ratio of urea


Relative medullary thickness


Relative medullary area


Juxtaglomerular nephrons


Glomerular filtration rate


Short-wavelength sensitive


Middle-wavelength sensitive


Long-wavelength sensitive


Ultraviolet sensitive




Vomeronasal organ



Our own research on honey possums has been generously supported by grants from the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Australian Institute for Nuclear Science and Engineering (AINSE), The University of Western Australia and “The Friends of the Honey Possum”. Numerous graduate students contributed to both field and laboratory studies that have increased our understanding of honey possums: in particular Jessica Oates and Ernie Stead-Richardson. Helpful comments and suggestions by two reviewers are gratefully acknowledged and our thanks to Ian Hume for proposing the review. Acknowledgement must also be made to the many researchers who have studied this unique marsupial over the past four decades and made this review possible.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Animal Biology and Centre for Native Animal Research (CNAR)The University of Western AustraliaPerthAustralia

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