FORESTS around Castlemaine, in central Victoria, have become a "stronghold" for a vulnerable native species decimated by the loss of bushland, a delighted scientist has revealed.
La Trobe University researcher Jess Lawton's findings could directly help other populations including those on the edge of Bendigo where conservationists are also trying to conserve the elusive tree-dwelling phascogales in areas with highly fragmented forests.
Most well known for their deathly sex lives, squirrel-like phascogales were almost driven to extinction in central Victoria by centuries of logging, which eliminated many of the ancient tree-hollows that they nested in.
All male phascogales die from the extreme stresses of surging hormones and an exhaustive search for mates in autumn and winter, leaving entire populations prone to wider local extinction events.
The species is in long term decline across Victoria and New South Wales but Ms Lawton has found that Mount Alexander Shire's forests are now a vital bastion for the species.
She spent several years tracking 50 human-built nest boxes in the area and was surprised when her motion sensor cameras detected phascogales at 84 per cent of the sites.
"It's often difficult to estimate these things before you start researching but it was much higher than I would have expected," Ms Lawton said.
"We suspect this area might be a stronghold because it has high amounts of vegetation cover."
About 35 per cent of the area is forest and those in between include wildlife "highways" like tree-lined creeks and roads, where animals can move relatively safely.
"Phascogales are the types of animals that can travel far and they make use of those connections through the forests," Ms Lawton said.
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Her research could directly influence the case for more phascogale-friendly conservation in nearby areas including Bendigo.
The research has been published in the Austral Ecology journal at a time when the City of Greater Bendigo is asking for community feedback on a range of potential biodiversity targets.
That includes potentially connecting remnant bushland patches with more vegetation.
Any changes would likely not come in time for the generation of young phascogales in nests around the region this spring.
A female phascogale will live for about three years and the council's draft targets would be completed by 2026 and 2036.
But there are things that landowners can do right now to help mother phascogales feed their babies, Ms Lawton said.
"It's about retaining trees, ensuring there is lots of leaf litter and logs," Ms Lawton said.
Both become homes to the insects, spiders, small lizards and other animals that phascogales forage for.
"If people don't have a property where that is possible they can join a Landcare group, or other group, and contribute to conserving their local forest. Those groups do a lot of good work," Ms Lawton said.
Cameras used in her study picked up more than just phascogales.
Ms Lawton has previously revealed how the motion sensor technology captured images of everything from photo-bombing birds to dogs and foxes that prey on native wildlife.
To view and comment on the council's draft environment strategy visit its consultation website.