Extreme weather events (e.g. heatwaves and droughts) can expose animals to environmental conditions outside of their zones of physiological tolerance, and even resistance, and impact long-term viability of populations and species. We examined the thermal and hygric physiology of the critically endangered western ringtail possum (Pseudocheirus occidentalis), a member of a family of marsupial folivores (Pseudocheiridae) that appear particularly vulnerable to environmental extremes. Basal metabolic rate and other standard physiological variables measured at an ambient temperature of 30°C conformed to values for other marsupials. At lower temperatures, body temperature decreased slightly, and metabolic rate increased significantly at 5°C. At higher temperatures, possums experienced mild hyperthermia and increased evaporative heat loss by licking rather than panting. Their point of relative water economy (–8.7°C) was more favourable than other pseudocheirid possums and the koala (Phascolarctos cinereus). We predict that western ringtail possums should tolerate low ambient temperatures well and be more physiologically tolerant of hot and dry conditions than common (Pseudocheirus peregrinus) and particularly green (Pseudochirops archeri) ringtail possums, and koalas. Our physiological data can be incorporated into mechanistic species distribution models to test our hypothesis that western ringtail possums should physiologically tolerate the climate of habitat further inland than their current distribution, and withstand moderate impacts of climate change in the south-west of Western Australia.
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Vol. 68 • No. 4