Tess O’Malley holds a possum with a GPS collar which tracks its movements.

At night when we are sleeping, possums and other nocturnal animals are on the move.

For the last 10 months, University of Auckland PHD student Tess O’Malley has been studying the behaviour of possums living in low population densities on and around the Kaitake Range and Pukeiti.

Her work in Egmont National Park is a long way from Dunedin where her family live, and even further from Connecticut in the USA where Tess grew up.  

Her research is already helping the Taranaki Mounga Project, Towards Predator-Free Taranaki, the University of Auckland, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research and other research organisations to determine the best predator control tools to use in low possums populated areas.

Already 15 possums have been safely captured at Pukeiti, on the Kaitake Range, neighbouring farmland and some translocated from another high-density location. All are collared with a lightweight yet powerful GPS transmitter. All but the translocated possums are released where they were initially found.

The GPS tracks their movements to understand the home range of each possum. From those that reside on the Kaitake Range and Pukeiti, a surveillance and control area is set up containing three different types of traps. The collected trap interaction data and footage from sensor cameras help Tess to study possum behaviour and interactions they have with these traps. After several months each possum is safely recaptured. Its collar is taken off and then the possum is removed from the population.

Over the next 12 months it is hoped another 100 possums will be collared and tracked for this research.

Tess is enjoying her time in Taranaki and aims to complete her research PHD research in 2022.

“I am really privileged to be working not only with this type of technology, but also alongside really passionate and smart people,” says Tess.

The Kaitake Range and Pukeiti were good locations for this research as they have a continuous forest canopy and low possum numbers. This is due to the huge amount of predator control work from landowners, the Kaitake Ranges Conservation Trust and the Towards a Predator-Free Taranaki programme over the last 18 months.

Tim Sjoberg, Science and Innovation Lead for Taranaki Mounga says Tess’s research is already providing valuable information about possum behavior and how far possums roam.

“Preliminary results show possums who live on farmland have a home range of 15 – 25 hectares. Some live solely on farmland or the Kaitake Range while some duck in and out of the Range,” says Tim. “This data provides a good insight into possum movements and also shows how important it is to work right across the forest, farmland and urban environments.”

Toby Shanley Project Manager for Towards Predator-Free Taranaki agrees.

“Tess’ research will provide valuable information to inform all parts of our project from removing the last possums and providing evidence that we have reached our goal to setting up an effective trap network to remove any invaders before they can start a new population,” says Toby.

In the last year Tess has been awarded a George Mason Charitable Trust Scholarship, and a Predator Free 2050 Postgraduate Study Grant.