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Turn off a light, guide a moth and save an endangered possum

This spring, turning off your outdoor lights will save more than your electricity bill.

Residents and businesses across south-east Australia are being urged to turn off unnecessary outdoor lights in a move to stop Bogong moths from getting lost, depriving mountain-pygmy possums of a vital food source.

Mountain pygmy-possums weigh just 40 grams when they awake from months of hibernation.

Mountain pygmy-possums weigh just 40 grams when they awake from months of hibernation.Credit:Zoos Victoria

The critically-endangered mountain pygmy-possum, Australia's only hibernating marsupial, lives primarily in Victoria’s alpine region as well as Mount Kosciuszko.

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Every year, after five to seven months of hibernation under snow, the possums emerge in spring weighing just 40 grams. They spend the next months doubling their weight to 80 grams in order to survive the next winter.

But supply of their main food source, Bogong moths, has plummeted from 4.4 billion to only a few hundred last year according to Dr Marissa Parrott, a reproductive biologist with Zoos Victoria who is leading the mission to repopulate the possums.

Around 95 per cent of surveyed females lost their babies due to a lack of food supply last year.

Around 95 per cent of surveyed females lost their babies due to a lack of food supply last year.Credit:Zoos Victoria

“There’s nothing else like them in the world. They wake up from hibernation, breed, then females need to get the right level of nutrition so they can produce milk for their babies to survive in their pouches.”

Last spring was the worst on record for the possums - 95 per cent of surveyed females lost their young, reducing the population to 2000.

Dr Parrott said the harrowing task of studying dead baby possums found “just no food in their stomachs”.

There’s nothing to lose here, and only the future of a species to gain.

Zoos Victoria chief executive Dr Jenny Gray

The dramatic drop-off in moths making it south appears to be due to the drought in NSW and Queensland, she said.

The moths can also become trapped by city lights, distracting them from visual cues on the horizon.

From September 1 to late October, Zoos Victoria will spread awareness of its Lights off for Moths campaign.

The Bogong Moth, which Australians are encouraged to monitor through a new app released by Zoos Victoria.

The Bogong Moth, which Australians are encouraged to monitor through a new app released by Zoos Victoria.Credit:Donald Hobern

It says every unnecessary outdoor light switched off from southern Queensland, through NSW and in northern Victoria will help the moths complete their sometimes thousand-kilometre migration.

“Every single moth is precious. The female moth can lay 2000 eggs," said Dr Parrott.

"Unfortunately in the last two years, what used to be a huge amazing swarm of these moths has turned into a trickle. This year we’re going to be facing another extremely dire situation, so we’re trying to work to avert that crisis”.

Zoos Victoria chief executive Dr Jenny Gray said she was in discussions with the government to get buildings like Canberra’s Parliament House on board with the campaign.

“We’ll be asking all the big museums, town halls, anywhere where outdoor lighting is not important for security - because we don’t want to compromise people's safety - all the way down to your domestic homes.”

Zoos Victoria will also launch a phone app, Moth Tracker, in mid-September that encourages people to share their sightings of the Bogong moth.

Knowledge on the whereabouts of the brown, paperclip-sized moths will have the compound effect of allowing Zoos Victoria to give residents a heads-up on when large groups of moths may be passing through.

Restoring moth supply will sustain the current mountain pygmy-possum population while scientists experiment with feeding programs and trials on new food sources, said Dr Gray.

“We’re all hearing about threatened species, droughts, so here’s an opportunity where we can all take a small action and make a difference,” she said.

“The big thing is for everybody across these states to tell their friends and families. There’s nothing to lose here, and only the future of a species to gain.”

Michael is a reporter for The Age.

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