Context . The Australian brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula) introduction to New Zealand has exacted a heavy toll on native biodiversity and presented the country with its greatest wildlife reservoir host for bovine tuberculosis (TB). Management efforts to control both possums and TB have been ongoing for decades, and the biology of possums has been studied extensively in Australia and New Zealand over the past 50 years; however, we still do not have a clear understanding of its home-range dynamics.
Aims . To investigate determinants of home range size by using a uniquely large dataset in the Orongorongo Valley, a highly monitored research area in New Zealand and compare our findings with those of other studies.
Methods . Possum density was estimated, for subpopulations on four 13-ha cage-trap grids, by the spatially explicit capture–mark–recapture analysis of trapping data from 10 consecutive months. Home ranges were estimated from trap locations using a 100% minimum convex polygon (MCP) method for 348 individuals and analysed with respect to grid, age and sex.
Key results . Mean (standard error) possum density, estimated as 4.87 (0.19), 6.92 (0.29), 4.08 (0.21) and 4.20 (0.19) ha–1 for the four grids, was significantly negatively correlated with mean MCP home-range size. Grid, age, and the interaction of age and sex were significantly related to home-range size. Older possums had larger home ranges than did younger possums. When ‘juvenile cohort’ and ‘adult cohort’ data were analysed separately, to investigate the significant interaction, males in the ‘adult cohort’ had significantly larger home ranges than did females, with the grid effect still being apparent, whereas neither sex nor grid effects were significant for the ‘juvenile cohort’.
Conclusions . Our findings indicate that, in addition to density, age and sex are likely to be consistent determinants of possum home-range size, but their influences may be masked in some studies by the complexity of wild-population dynamics.
Implications . Our findings have strong implications regarding both disease transmission among possums and possum management. The fact that adult males occupy larger home ranges and the understanding that possum home range increases as population density decreases are an indication that males may be the primary drivers of disease transmission in possum populations. The understanding that possum home range increases as population density decreases could be a direct reflection of the ability of TB to persist in the wild that counteracts current management procedures. If individuals, and particularly males, infected with TB can withstand control measures, their ensuing home-range expansion will result in possible bacteria spread in both the expanded area of habitation and new individuals becoming subjected to infection (both immigrant possums and other control survivors). Therefore, managers should consider potential approaches for luring possum males in control operations.