Hypsi vs. college student: can you spot the difference?

As college students, we have a lot of daily habits that are pretty similar to those of the Musky Rat-Kangaroo. During the rainforest module of our study abroad program, we studied population sizes of these small marsupials and realized that we’re actually not too different from them. Ever heard of a Musky Rat-Kangaroo? We definitely hadn’t until we ventured to Australia for our study abroad program, School for International Training’s Rainforest, Reef and Cultural Ecology, based out of Cairns, Australia.

Know any college students with a “hip” nickname? The Musky Rat-Kangaroo has one too. Known colloquially as “hypsi,” it gets this name from its bionomial, Hypsiprymnodon moschatus. Hypsis are the smallest species of kangaroo and have coppery brown bodies, grey heads and a hairless, rat-like tail.

Whether it is in the dining hall or the rainforests of Australia, both college students and hypsis spend a lot of time foraging for food. The hypsi’s main food sources are fruit and seeds on the forest floor, but they will also sometimes eat fungi and insects. As they toil to find food sources, they face the threats of predators and forest fragmentation—the separation of large forests by roads or other factors into isolated forest patches—that further limit resources and creates disjunction between inhabitable rainforest areas. It’s kind of like when we’re trying to get to the dining hall, but there are piles of snow in the way. Once you reach the dining hall, the football team’s eaten all of the food!

Hypsis are a good species to study because they are diurnal animals (active during the day and sleep at night), like we are supposed to be—despite partying and cramming for finals. Also, just like we have dorms, hypsis live in their own segments of the rainforest with a wide array of canopy tree species.

Our search for these creatures occurred at several different areas in the Atherton Tablelands. Initially, we searched hopelessly for the cute little faces in the bush—to no avail. With each passing minute, we grew increasingly nervous that we would not see a single one! Suddenly, a small, furry figure hopped like a rabbit right across the path. Then, slowly but surely, we began to see more. We walked along the path for two hours next to the fragmented forest of Lake Eacham in the morning and another two hours in a forested area called Gadgarra in the afternoon. We counted the number of hypsis and noted their behavior, combining our observations with those of other students on our program that visited additional sites. We then compared these numbers to the data collected last March by previous students from our program.

In March, forest fruit numbers are at their peak, which means booming hypsi populations. Think about how college students flock towards large sources of free food as well. However, during October, when we conducted this study, fruit is scarce on the forest floor so we believed we would see less hypsis than students last semester. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find exactly the opposite result.

In almost all sites, the overall number of hypsis is higher this October than last March. Hypsi’s young emerge from the pouch in October; this is a possible explanation for a population boom, as well as the sighting of several juveniles. Additionally, since fruit resources are low at this time, hypsis increase their foraging along trails for fungi, where we are more likely to see them.

Hypsis prefer to live in large forest areas, just like how students would prefer to live in a large single versus a tiny double. So, we figured we would see more hypsis in large forests than in forests with roads and trails cutting through. Strangely enough, we ended up seeing the complete opposite again! Upon looking at this interesting discovery, we realized it could have to do with one of the hypsi’s main predators, the quoll.

Quolls are marsupial cats native to Australia that prefer large forests so it is possible we saw more hypsis in these fragmented forests simply due to the lack of predators preferential to alternative environments. It’s sort of like when there are more of us partying around campus when fewer security guards are present. Additionally, the fragmented forests we studied were next to lakes and a source of water is a vital part of the hypsi’s territory. This environmental factor also explains why we saw more hypsis in the forest fragments rather than the continuous forest sites … I mean we all chose Colby for the pond, right?

Though these marsupials are not considered threatened, they are deteriorating in numbers and health. Continuing effects of past rainforest clearing is a severe detriment to plants and animals within the Wet Tropics. While our daily struggles, such as making it to class through the snowstorm, may not be quite as harmful as the hypsi struggle to find food in fragmented rainforests, you can see how changes in the your environment can affect the way you live. The same goes for hypsis! Any change we make in the hypsis’ environment also has the potential to affect them—so let’s make these alterations positive so these hip hypsis can thrive in the future.

Leave a Reply