Honey possums* (Tarsipes rostratus) are tiny (really tiny! about half the weight of a mouse)** marsupials that live in southern Western Australia. And since I’m featuring unusual pollinators this week, the honey possum*** is a natural place to start.
These tiny animal subsist on nectar and pollen, just like a bee does. They tend to eat mainly pollen and nectar from the families Proteaceae, Myrtaceae, and Ericaceae. Proteaceae has a southern hemisphere distribution, while Myrtaceae has a worldwide distribution in tropical and subtropical areas. Ericaceae is global and includes familiar plants to those in the northern hemisphere, like blueberries, huckleberries, and rhododendrons.
That tongue can flick in and out four times a second to drink nectar! They are also effective pollinators, and many plants of that region are primarily dependent on vertebrates to carry their pollen (Phillips et al 2010).
I first heard about the honey possum in the context of an endangered Banskia species. The conservationist I was speaking with was convinced that the Banksia depended on the honey possum as its primary pollinator. However, I’m having difficulty supporting her claim with science (honeyeaters are the dominant generalist pollinators in much of Australia, and it seems like the Banksias of that region are also pollinated by honeyeaters; however, there is some evidence that some of the plants prefer the honey possums to the honeyeaters, see Wooller et al 1983), so I’ll leave it at that.
There is a really great breakdown about the research on the honey possum here.
*Not really possums, and don’t eat honey. *shrug*
**At birth, they are the smallest mammals. In spite of their tiny body size, the males have the largest sperm known of any mammal. This large sperm size is likely due to sexual selection, as larger sperm can often travel faster to reach the egg and fertilize it.