Ecology of natural hibernation in the marsupial mountain pygmy-possum (Burramys parvus)
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The hibernating marsupial mountain pygmy-possum (Burramys parvus, 40 g) has to raise its slow-growing offspring during a short alpine summer. Only females provide parental care, while after mating males emigrate to marginal habitats often at lower altitudes which can sustain only low possum densities. We predicted that the hibernation strategies in mountain pygmy-possums are distinct from those of similar-sized placental hibernators, because of the developmental constraints in marsupials and because hibernation differs between the sexes. Using temperature-sensitive radio transmitters, we studied the hibernation patterns of free-living male and female mountain pygmy-possums living in a north- and a south-facing boulder field (Kosciusko National Park) for two consecutive winters. Individual possums commenced hibernation several months before the snow season. As in other hibernators, torpor in the mountain pygmy-possum was interrupted by periodic arousals which occurred most often during the late afternoon. Torpor bouts initially lasted a few days when the hibernacula temperature (Thib) ranged from 4 to 7°C. As the hibernation season progressed, torpor bouts became longer and possum body temperatures (Tb) approached 2°C. The Tbs of females were significantly lower and torpor bouts were longer in the second half of the hibernation season than in males. Between torpor bouts, both sexes were often active and left hibernacula for periods of up to 5 days. Especially during the first months of the hibernation season, possums also frequently changed hibernacula sites probably in an attempt to select a site with a more suitable microclimate. Emergence from hibernation was closely coupled with the disappearance of snow from the possum habitat (September 1995, October 1996) and the limited fat stores probably dictate an opportunistic spring emergence. However, in 1995, spring was early and males emerged significantly earlier than females. In 1996, when snow melt was delayed, this difference vanished. Testes are regressed in males during hibernation and the time needed for testes growth and spermatogenesis favours an earlier emergence for males which was probably achieved by their preference for the more sun exposed north-facing boulder field. A sexual dimorphism in hibernation strategies and spring emergence therefore enables mountain pygmy-possums to cope with their harsh alpine environment.
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