September is National Biodiversity Month, with Monday 7 September marking National Threatened Species Day. This month is a time to share stories of our unique native flora and fauna and highlight the need for protection, conservation, and improvement of biodiversity within Australia and globally. Mount Hotham Alpine Resort Management Board is dedicated to these actions and is home to 3 threated species - the Alpine She-oak Skink, Alpine Tree Frog and Mountain Pygmy Possum.
Alpine She-oak Skink (Cyclodomorphus casuarinae) - Conservation Status: Endangered
Alpine She-oak Skinks are only found across a few locations in Victoria and NSW above 1500 m, with the majority adjacent to Hotham and Falls Creek Resorts. She-oak skinks are up to 12cm in length and live for around 5 years. She-oak skinks are largely carnivorous feeling on small invertebrates, and occasionally on small lizards, snakes, or plants. When threatened they imitate snakes by drawing their legs in and flicking their tongues. They hibernate over winter and give birth to live young.
The major threats to She-oak skinks are fire, habitat destruction and climate change. These threats change the vegetation and have the potential to remove vegetation which the skinks rely on for shelter. Construction of infrastructure can also reduce and fragment habitat. Grazing, trampling and ground disturbance by feral horses, deer and pigs further pose a threat, along with predation by feral rats, foxes, and cats.
Due to their restricted habitat, populations are easily isolated, with each mountain top acting like an island. To conserve this species regular population monitoring occurs at Hotham, including habitat surveying and genetic sampling. Additionally, a population has been established at Zoos Victoria where they are developing husbandry techniques, and should wild populations come under immediate risk of extinction a recovery plan can be implemented.
Alpine Tree Frog (Litoria verreauxii alpine) - Conservation Status: Vulnerable
Alpine Tree Frogs are found in Victoria and NSW, within woodland, heath, grassland and herbfield vegetation across montane, subalpine, and alpine altitudes. They are about 3 cm long and is a green-brown colour. Despite their name Alpine tree frogs spend most of their time on the ground, breeding in both natural and artificial habitats including wetlands, ponds, bogs, fens, dams, or drainage lines. Their call is a whistling noise, with males calling during spring and summer during the breeding period- you can listen to their call on the Frogs of Australia website here. Females lay eggs which attach onto submerged vegetation and from which tadpoles hatch in late summer.
One of the biggest threats to the Alpine Tree Frog is Chytridiomycosis a fungal disease caused by the pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) that spreads within water and moist environments. Currently the prevalence of Bd at Hotham is relatively low. Further threats include reduced habitat, vegetation changes, predation by introduced fish in creeks, loss of habitat connectivity, climate change, deer wallow formation and trampling, and pollution.
Breeding populations of Alpine Tree Frogs persist across numerous standing water bodies, mostly artificial (e.g. swales and drains), within the Mount Hotham Resort. The most noticeable observation were tadpoles in Loch Dam in February 2017.
Mountain Pygmy Possum (Burramys parvus) - Conservation Status: Endangered
The Mountain Pygmy Possum (MPP) was thought to be extinct until discovered at the University Ski Club near Mt Higginbotham in 1966. MPP are found exclusively in Australia’s snow-covered alpine and sub-alpine regions above 1400 m. MPP are the largest of the 5 pygmy-possum species, however, weighs only 45g. They live within boulder fields associated with Mountain Plum Pine (Podocarpus lawrencei).
MPP build up fat reserves for winter by feeding on Bogong Moths during the summer, almost doubling their body weight. Their diet is supplemented by foraging on berries and seeds of the Mountain Plum Pine (Podocarpus lawrencei), Snow-beard Heath (Acrothamnus montanus), and Tall-rice Flower (Pimelea ligustrina). MPP go into bouts of torpor (similar to hibernation) throughout the winter (April-October) lasting several days up to 3 weeks during the coldest months. When they awake from torpor they feed on food cached (stored) during the summer.
MPP are threatened due to their restricted distribution, loss of habitat, and predation from feral cats and foxes. Here at Hotham we are working closely with researchers to monitor populations and have recently installed a second ‘Tunnel of Love’ - a tunnel passing under the Great Alpine Road near Mount Little Higginbotham to facilitate migration and mating. Additionally, a predator monitoring and control program operates throughout the resort to reduce the threat of predation by cats and foxes. Similar to the She-Oak Skink, a captive population of MPP are housed at Zoos Victoria Healesville Sanctuary.