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Behavioural Adaptation of Brushtail Possums (Trichosurus Vulpecula) to Captivity

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Brushtail possums, Trichosurus vulpecula, are New Zealand's most serious vertebrate pest, facilitating the spread of bovine tuberculosis to livestock, and causing severe damage to native flora and fauna. Possum control has become a national research priority, involving the use of large numbers of captive possums. Successful adaptation of these animals to captivity is important for the welfare of the possums and for the validity of experimental results. The objective of this study was to determine, by behavioural means, the time individually caged possums required for adaptation to captivity. We used a simple behavioural measure – a possum's daily response to a caregiver at feeding (a feeding test) – to assess changes in the behaviour of possums after arrival in captivity. We also recorded changes in possum body weight throughout this period. Initially most possums 'avoided' the caregiver, but within 7 days more than 80 per cent of animals no longer avoided. 'In den' and 'approach' behaviour rapidly increased for the first 14 days in captivity, after which den use became less common as more possums 'approached' the caregiver. By day 29 of captivity, more than 80 per cent of the possums 'approached' the caregiver. The possums' body weight did not change significantly during the first 14 days in captivity, but had increased significantly by day 28, and continued to increase for at least 6 weeks after capture. These data suggest that most possums adapt to captivity within 4 weeks. For the welfare of possums and the reliability of experimental results, we recommend that possums are not used in experiments until at least 4 weeks after capture.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2000-11-01

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