Scientists are racing against the clock to prevent the world’s first extinction of a mammal due to climate change.
It is feared the lemuroid possum, which can be either white or chocolate brown, has been wiped out in one of its two habitat areas due to rising temperatures.
The possum, which was once plentiful in the Carbine range north of the Queensland city of Cairns, has not been seen in the region since a spotlighting expedition in 2005.
Experts believe an average rise of 0.8 degrees celsius in temperature is responsible for the species’ impending extinction, as their bodies are not capable of functioning above 30 degrees celsius.
Professor Stephen Williams from James Cook University’s Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change fears a severe heat wave spike in the summer of 2005 was responsible for wiping out potentially all the lemuroid possums in that particular region.
He said a heatwave that lasted four to five hours would have a devastating effect.
“It only takes the hottest temperature for the first time going over that (30 degrees celsius) threshold and you can get the whole population dying off,” he said.
The possum has only ever been found at 1000m or higher in the 1300m Carbine range.
Prof Williams said an expedition would be launched in 2009 to the untouched peak of the Carbine range to try and find any surviving possums.
“The bigger more serious issue is that this could be a sign of much broader impacts across a range of species,” he said.
He said relocation of any found possums was an option, possibly to their only other known habitat in the Atherton Tablelands, south of Cairns.
The scientists will also be searching for specific frog and lizard species in the region during the expedition, as they too have been identified as facing possible extinction due to climate change.
Prof Williams hopes data collected during the expedition will encourage governments to spend the same amount of funding on north Queensland rainforests as being spent on the Great Barrier Reef, as well as highlight the need to cut back on greenhouse gases.