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April 26, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Of possums and golden showers

Making Fewer Possum Babies

My flatmate often gleefully tells us of her latest golden shower experience when she gets home from work.

She heads off every morning and has a new story to tell us when she gets home. Seriously weird goings on really.

But there is method in her seemingly kinky madness.

Victoria University has partnered with Wellington Zoo to research possum contraception.

My flatmate Hadley Watson is on the research team, and part of her job is to play with animals, make them pee in a cup and feed them jam sandwiches.

It isn’t all cute animals and jam sandwiches in the wild though. Possums can be rather destructive, eating native bird eggs, and as carriers of tuberculosis they are a headache and serious economic threat for farmers.

Controversy surrounds methods to control the pests in the wild. The 1080 poison drops have prompted protests and court cases in an attempt to stop the drops.

Approximately $110 million is spent annually on possum control, and the majority of this is being spent on poisons.

Led by Associate Professor Research Fellow Doug Eckery from the School of Biological Sciences, research is underway to reduce reliance on 1080 poison by developing vaccines and other compounds to make possums infertile.

Before moving to Vic in 2006, Eckery had been involved in possum fertility control research for a number of years.

Eckery worked with the Wellington Zoo to establish a possum breeding colony, which allows the research team access to the possums to check the effectiveness of the contraceptive methods.

“I wanted to continue research in this area because it was challenging scientifically and also because the results can make a real difference to how possums are managed in New Zealand. But I needed access to at least a small colony of animals. Thankfully, we were able to relocate several animals from a colony I had previously established to the zoo.”

Eckery and his team work closely with the zoo to ensure the comfort of the animals.

“There are very strict guidelines for the use of animals in research, and just because possums are regarded as a serious pest, their use is no exception.

“Our possums are housed in free-range pens and a lot of effort is put into making sure the pens are environmentally enriched.

“Staff at the zoo treat our animals to the same high standard they would any other animal at the zoo and also provide any veterinary care if needed. Unhealthy or stressed possums won’t breed well, so it’s very important that we provided the right environment for our animals.”

Hadley said part of the team has bonded with the possums.

“When I began work with the project in January this year, I didn’t realise it would be such a boon for both the animals and scientists involved.

“While animal research can often be a sad affair, those of us working with the colony at the Wellington Zoo establish very real and rewarding relationships with our possums and treat them as colleagues in this effort to find a safe and healthy sterilisation method.”

Eckery told Victorious magazine the current global trend for the management of invasive wildlife species is the use of non-lethal methods of control.

A Hawkes Bay farmer says that while the poison programme has been effective, he would welcome longer-term biological controls.

“It takes a lot of time to mange pest control issues on a property. The 1080 programme has been very effective, but there were issues in the regional council management of the poison distribution and management.

“There is really no other option but to develop effective biological controls.

“While tuberculosis is the major concern, the destruction of the forests and native bird life is also a problem.

“They eat the eggs and destroy the trees. Flying over the native forests on our property, you could see that all of the rata trees were dead from the possums eating the shoots.

“Following the implementation of the 1080 programme, the forests had a chance to start regenerating and the increase in bird life on and around our property was very apparent.”

Eckery says the development of these alternative controls is encouraged across all research in the field.

“Following the recent reassessment of 1080 poison in New Zealand by the Environmental Risk Management Authority, a recommendation was given for more research into alternative methods of possum control.

“In line with this requirement, part of the reproductive biology research programme at Victoria is focussed on methods of fertility control for the management of possums in New Zealand.”

The research, carried out in partnership with the National Research Centre for Possum Biocontrol, is finding ways to control the fertility, but is also looking at how to administer the vaccines once completed.

“A major challenge now is to develop practical methods to deliver these vaccines and compounds to possums in the wild.”

Eckery says the partnership with the Wellington Zoo is very complementary and “it’s been a great fit”.

“It has allowed both of us to achieve some of our objectives and I think it has opened up new opportunities that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“In addition, the partnership has helped to educate the public about the impacts of invasive animals on biodiversity and has facilitated wider discussions about the use of poisons and possible alternatives to possum control.”

Wellington Zoo Chief Executive Officer Karen Fifield told Victorious magazine that conservation research is a key component of the Zoo’s conservation strategy.

The strategy is behind the motivation to partner with Victoria.

“We are thrilled to partner with Victoria University for the protection of New Zealand flora and fauna.”

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News Editor and Chief Editor-Annoyance. Thinks you should volunteer to write news. Is easily distracted by shiny things.

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