A Science Story: Forest fairies

On Easter Monday 1961, a tiny possum was brought back from the dead. Today, politics and natural disaster have joined forces to seal its demise once and for all.

Mountain ash in fog.  Lizardstomp/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Mountain ash in fog. Lizardstomp/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The binoculars focused, and I realised what I was looking at. The hair stood up on the back of my neck, still does today when I allow myself to think back to that moment.

In the mountain ash forests of Victoria's Central Highlands, there lives a tiny creature. It emerges only at night, flitting through the tree-tops as swiftly and as silently as a ghost.

Indeed, at one time the Leadbeater's possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) was nothing but a ghost. The species was thought extinct for half a century, until Easter Monday 1961, when it was rediscovered by a young museum assistant named Eric Wilkinson.

Today, the Leadbeater's possum once again sits on the cusp of extinction. Under threat from bushfire and clearfell logging, it was recently declared critically endangered by the Federal Government. If we continue business as usual, this time there won't be an Easter resurrection.


This episode features the following guests:

  • Professor David Lindenmayer, conservation ecologist at Australian National University
  • Eric Wilkinson, retired geologist and rediscoverer of Leadbeater's possum (1961)
  • Professor David Bowman, environmental change biologist at University of Tasmania
  • Steve Meacher, President of the Friends of Leadbeater's Possum
  • Trent Patten, conservationist (WOTCH community group) and his three volunteers Callum Luke, Connor Van Doorn and Tayla Hooker
  • John Sharp, my friend and fellow zoologist


CC BY 4.0: Kevin McLeod ("Past the Edge", "Not As It Seems", "Sneaky Adventure", “Arcadia“, “Lost Frontier“,"Hidden Agenda“, “Blue Feather“, "Awkward Meeting", "Gymnopedie No 3", "Professor and the Plant", "Luminous Rain", "Faceoff"); Chris Zabriskie (“Undercover Vampire Policeman“, “I Am Running Down the Long Hallway of Viewmont Elementary”)

CC BY-NC 3.0: Podington Bear ("Loll", "Little Black Cloud")


Sampling 1.0: ArcLegend05 (“Bushes Rustling“)

CC BY 3.0: Mark DiAngelo (“Wind“); Ellie (“Take picture“); GoodSoundForYou (“Gun Fire“); Mike Koenig (“Lawn Mower Cutoff“, “Button“, “Splitting wood“); Unknown creator (“Car Door“, “Camera click“)

CC BY-NC 3.0: Stephan Schutze (“Humvee“, "Brush fire")

CC BY-NC-SA 3.0: Tom Tarrant (“XC121323 – Australian Owlet-nightjar– Aegotheles cristatus cristatus”); Unknown creator ("Chain Saw") 

Public domain: Lisa Redfern (“Crickets Chirping at Night“)