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Proceedings of the First Symposium on Marsupials in New Zealand


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One of my first editing tasks was to reach a decision on the names to be used for the various marsupials referred to in these Proceedings, and especially on which vernacular name should be used for Trichosurus vulpecula. Recent New Zealand policy has been to call this well-known Australian marsupial the 'brush-tailed opossum' though 'Australian opossum', 'Australian phalanger', 'common possum' are some other names that have been used. 'Brush-tailed opossum' is now enshrined in numerous New Zealand scientific and management publications as well as in national legislation. By contrast in Australia the name 'possum' is used to describe Trichosurus and its allies, and the vernacular name for T. vulpecula used by authorities such as Ride (1970) and Tyndale-Biscoe (1973) is simply 'brush possum'. Dr Tyndale-Biscoe and many overseas authors use the term 'opossum' in reference to New World polyprotodont marsupials such as Didelphis, a useful convention to differentiate them from the Australian diprotodont 'possums'. In 1980 the Australian Mammal Society Vernacular Names Committee published a list of recommended names for Australian mammals: Trichosurus vulpecula is referred to as the 'Common Brushtail Possum'.

In these Proceedings I have decided to use the term 'possum' rather than 'opossum' for Trichosurus vulpecula, being guided by the majority wish of the symposium delegates: 67 percent voted for 'possum', 23 percent voted for 'opossum' and 10 percent abstained. After careful consideration I have avoided use of 'brush-tailed possum' or 'brush possum1 for the specific name: given a decision for change I felt it preferable to follow the recommendation of the Australian Mammal Society and use, where necessary, the name 'common brushtail possum'. Hopefully this name will become widely accepted in the New Zealand literature for the need for sensible rationalisation of this relatively minor matter is long overdue. Partly to avoid further delays in production of these Proceedings, I have not adopted the suggestions of the Australian Mammal Society in their entirety - for instance the initial letters of the free-standing words are not capitalised (as in 'Common Brushtail Possum'), and the term 'possum' rather than 'brushtail' is often used in general text references to the species. The matter of using 'possum' or 'opossum' is pursued further in Dr Tyndale-Biscoe's Keynote Address and in Workshop Topic 10. Finally, the nomenclature of other native Australian mammals referred to in these Proceedings also follows the Australian Mammal Society recommendations.

After introduction from Australia during the mid to late nineteenth century, the New Zealand marsupial fauna now comprises six or seven species, mostly wallabies. The following species list includes information on distribution from Gibb and Flux (1973):

Class Mammalia

Order Marsupialia

Family Phalangeridae

Trichosurus vulpecula, common brushtail possum.

Abundant and widespread throughout most of New Zealand.

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The six species of wallaby found in New Zealand drawn to scale by Dr J.E.C. Flux. Reproduced with the artist's permission from WODZICKI, K. & FLUX, J.E.C.F. 1967. Guide to introduced wallabies in New Zealand. Tuatara 15: p. 51.

The six species of wallaby found in New Zealand drawn to scale by Dr J.E.C. Flux. Reproduced with the artist's permission from WODZICKI, K. & FLUX, J.E.C.F. 1967. Guide to introduced wallabies in New Zealand. Tuatara 15: p. 51.

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Family Macropodidae

Macropus dorsalis, black-striped wallaby.

Formerly Kawau Island, Hauraki Gulf. No definite
records since 1954.

M. eugenii, tammar wallaby.

Kawau Island and Rotorua district, North Island.

M. parma, parma wallaby.

Kawau Island.

M. rufogriseus, red-necked wallaby.

Near Waimate and a few near Lake Hawea, South Island.

Wallabia bicolor, swamp wallaby.

Kawau Island.

Petrogale penicillata, brush-tailed rock-wallaby.

Kawau, Rangitoto and Motutapu Islands, Hauraki Gulf.

Without doubt the common brushtail possum has become the most familiar marsupial in New Zealand. While still supplying a lucrative fur industry for which it was introduced, this species is now recognised as a mixed blessing: against any economic gains have to be balanced the substantial economic and environmental costs due to its impact on indigenous vegetation and on the forestry and agricultural sectors in New Zealand.

The organising committee for the symposium endeavoured to solicit papers covering a range of New Zealand marsupial species, but with the notable exceptions of Dr Tyndale-Biscoe's Keynote Address and Mr Meadow's paper on captive wallabies, the bulk of these Proceedings deal with the common brushtail possum. While quite explicable, perhaps this imbalance will serve to emphasise the need for more research on New Zealand wallabies, alongside continued research on the possum.

The symposium aimed to bring together a diverse group of New Zealand people sharing an interest in marsupials, to examine developments and problems in research and management and to define priority areas for future research. In addition to contributed papers two afternoon workshop discussions were held on a range of matters of interest and concern; these are reproduced in an edited form. Most of the contributed papers are expanded versions of those read at the symposium, although five authors only present abstracts of their papers.

For its success the symposium owes a particular debt to its convener Dr J.M. Cummins of Victoria University who did considerable work in its organisation assisted by a small organising committee comprising Dr B.D. Bell (Victoria University), Dr R.E. Brockie (DSIR), Dr W.Q. Green (NZ Forest Service) and Mrs K.B. Sutton (Victoria University). Unfortunately disrupted air-flights prevented Dr Tyndale-Biscoe personally attending the meeting, but thanks to the assistance of Mr I.G. Crook and Radio New Zealand the symposium heard a tape-recording of his Keynote Address followed by a live telephone discussion link-up.

As editor, I have endeavoured to maintain an accurate record of the Proceedings, despite considerable difficulties with certain parts of the discussion due to technical problems in tape-recording. Some of the gaps were filled by consulting the speakers involved, although if in doubt I have omitted sections rather than risk misrepresentation.

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It is my pleasure to thank Fletcher Timber, Apex Pest Control NZ Ltd., Consolidated Traders Ltd., the National Parks Authority of New Zealand, the New Zealand Forest Service, Medical Supplies NZ Ltd., and Selby-Wilton Scientific Ltd. for generously sponsoring the symposium.

The Zoology Department gratefully acknowledges the financial support towards publication of these Proceedings provided by a major grant from the Scientific Research Distribution Committee of the Lottery Board of Control and by funds from the Publications Committee of the Victoria University of Wellington. Mrs M.E. Cooper and Miss N. Black kindly typed the final copy of this work which is produced by John Milne Ltd. of Wellington.


Gibb, J.A. & Flux, J.E.C.F. 1973. Mammals. Chapter 14 In Williams, G.R. (Ed.) The natural history of New Zealand. Reed, Wellington.

Ride, W.D.L. 1970. A guide to the native mammals of Australia. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Strahan, R. (Ed.). 1980. Recommended common names of Australian mammals. The Australian Mammal Society Bulletin 6 (2):. 13–23.

Tyndale-Biscoe, H. 1973. Life of marsupials. Edward Arnold, London.

Wodzicki, K. & Flux, J.E.C.F. 1967. Guide to introduced wallabies in New Zealand. Tuatara 15: p.51.

Ben D. Bell
May 1981