Dr Linda Broome has been studying and tracking the endangered Mountain pygmy possum since 1986, when she returned to Australia after finishing her PhD in ecology and biology at Utah State University. Her love for the small mammal has grown just as much as the climate crisis that threatens its existence.


The following is an edited extract of ‘Between a Rock and a Hot Place’, which appears in full in ‘Adventures in Climate Science: Scientists’ Tales From the Frontiers of Climate Change’.

January 1986

I had just driven from Sydney to the Snowy Mountains in far south New South Wales and was easing the vehicle steadily up the newly made steep, dirt track to Mt Blue Cow.

Breathing a sigh of relief and taking a deep breath of fresh, eucalypt-laden mountain air after my five-hour drive from the city, I rounded the last bend. I looked up at the mountain peak towering above me, and immediately swore, deriding myself with thoughts of, ‘Hell’s teeth, now what have I let myself in for?!’.

As I gazed at that steep, boulder-strewn slope above me I realised the strong likelihood of something breaking in these Australian mountains. The slope was covered with shrubs at its lower elevations, cascades of boulders cloaked the edges, and an endemic conifer, the Mountain Plum pine, low-growing and hugging the surface of the rocks for warmth and wind protection, had the potential to catch the foot of the unwary.

My task was to live-trap and radio-track a newly discovered population of Mountain pygmy possums that were known to occur on the site and suggest means by which the effects of the developing ski resort might be ameliorated. Plans for the resort were well underway, but very little was known of the possums’ numbers, their movements, ecology, the significance of the site in relation to the whole population or the impacts the ski resort might have on them.



As my quadriceps and sure-footedness grew, so did my love of that mountain and its inhabitants. In the early morning light, when checking traps set for the possums, my eye was drawn east across the rolling plains of the Monaro tableland, and a little north to the Brindabella Ranges of the ACT, shrouds of mist rising from the valleys with banks of fog low on the horizon indicating the coastal lowlands beyond.

The trap-line ascent to the peak of Mt Blue Cow at 1,984m afforded a breathtaking view to the west across to the Main Range and Mt Kosciuszko, the highest peak on the Australian mainland (2,228m). Summer dusks on the peak were accompanied by a low hum from the depths of the boulders beneath, rising to a crescendo of a million tiny wings as the migratory Bogong moths took their evening flight.

Bogong moths undertake a remarkable annual spring journey of up to 1,000km to escape the heat of the lowlands, spending the summer months sheltering in the cool rock crevices of the mountains, before making their way back in autumn to breed.

There were magic nights as I followed the signals of the radio-collared possums with stars of the Milky Way blazing overhead and bats swooping for the Bogong moths.

Some male possums took me from low on the mountain, across the peak to Guthega and back in the early morning—a 3km round trip in the dark with a bold, mate-seeking, gene-spreading, 35g possum. Even the females who nested at the lower elevations would travel up to 500m to the peak to feed on the Bogong moths that concentrated there in the hottest part of summer. Sometimes they headed out several times in a single night when their rapidly growing young were too large to be carried in the pouch and were left in the nest. The deluxe habitat was on the peak, with females there moving less than 100m in summer and winter.



Winter afternoons initially saw me skiing in on cross-country skis, and later on an energy-saving, hand-warming, noisy, but highly entertaining, snowmobile. Seeking the nest sites of possums and checking them regularly throughout the night, some nights turned to blizzards with rime ice coating my jacket, and the branches of Snow gums snapping under the weight of new snow with the loud report of gunfire.

The wind, picking up through the night with all the strength of the Roaring Forties behind it, once carried me to the edge of a cornice under which the possums were safely ensconced, and then over in a tumble of skis and radio tracking gear. Other nights were calm, with the crunching cold of skis or snowshoes as I traversed the mountain, moonlight reflecting from the snow so brightly I had no need of my head lamp to write notes.

Like this? Read more: This Marine Biologist is Trying to Save a Fish That ‘Walks’ on its ‘Hands’

This was repeated two years later, with the night work taken over by data loggers at nest sites recording body temperatures of possums carrying thermal sensors. Skiing across the mountain with radio antenna in hand to locate individuals that occasionally moved position, I heard wisecracks from clients on the newly opened chairlift above me, ‘Lost your TV, love?’.

In my mind, the grandeur and peace of the mountain was now diminished. Though I discovered that Mountain pygmy possums hibernate for up to seven months underneath their deep, doona covers of snow.

The next three decades saw me discovering more and more about the Mountain pygmy possum. But I also watched their numbers drop as they battled drought, feral cats… and fire.

4th January 2020

I am living on a property at Bywong, north of Canberra. The temperature has climbed to 43°C and the air is thick with smoke. I have the radio on and eyes glued to the fire mapping updates on my iPad. I have just heard the Dunns Road fire developed into a catastrophic firestorm, swept through Cabramurra creating 128km per hour winds and temperatures approaching 70°C. The eye was centred on Rough Creek.

On the 15th of January, with fires still burning towards Lake Eucumbene, I went into the area with a team of colleagues and NPWS staff. We took a truckload of feeding and water stations we had constructed while waiting anxiously for permission to enter.

We drove through kilometre after kilometre of blackened forest, Snow gum woodland and alpine meadows, coming into Happy Jacks Valley to see all the regrowth from 2003 burnt again, but worse. The mountain gums on Boltons Hill were now gone, but with some browned leaves still evident in patches of shrubs near the creek. Then to Rough Creek, where the fire had been so intense not even the fine branches of the Snow gums remained, and every single Mountain Plum pine, having escaped the 2003 fire on the shelter of the rocks, was now destroyed. It was heartbreaking.

My cat monitoring cameras dripped plastic on the rocks, but remarkably one of the SD cards was intact, later showing the approaching flames, then stopping abruptly.

Another camera at Happy Jacks Valley showed a family of dingos, a kangaroo, a brushtail possum with a baby on her back, cats, and foxes passing by on the road on their nightly business before the fire, and then the valley choked with fire and swirling ash. After the fire was an image of the juvenile possum looking distressed and then not seen again, the white mum dingo and her pup also missing, no kangaroo, but still a feral cat smiling smugly into the camera.

We worked in awe with purpose holding back dismay, installing the first of 61 feeding stations and 30 water stations that we deployed on the three sites in the hope that the pygmy possums had survived the fire deep in the shelter of the rocks, and with the knowledge that they would have little to eat if they had. Due to the prevailing drought conditions, the streams at Rough Creek had ceased running and the Bogong moths had failed to arrive from their breeding grounds on the parched western plains.

The following week we included Snow Ridge, which had suffered a similar fate, with the camera there recording a temperature of 89°C before it stopped.

What finally brought the tears that day was stepping out of the vehicle on the way back past Lake Eucumbene where the fire was steadily burning forward, and hearing a lyrebird singing in its path.

The conditions that led to that fire and Australia’s Black Summer of 2019-20 were three years of extreme, unrelenting drought and high temperatures that hit us like freight train, brought on by global heating. Threats from a warming world are very evident in the Snowy Mountains. In the 37 years that I have lived and loved the Mountain pygmy possum and its alpine environment, I have seen the snow cover become less reliable, shallower, and melting earlier in spring.



Mid-winter rain events often replace snow; water dripping into the hibernation sites of the possums wakes them and causes energy loss and death before spring. Fires are becoming a frequent event rather than a rarity. Drying streams result in less available habitat for the possums and food shortages are caused by drought, low numbers of Bogong moths and loss of shrub cover, especially Mountain Plum pines, from fires.

Climate change is a global threat and can only be addressed by a global response, but the response must start at home. This is particularly relevant to Australia, where in the last few years the word ‘unprecedented’ was used by some governments as an excuse for unpreparedness for both fire and flood. However, climate scientists have been predicting and warning about these conditions for the last 35 years or more.

It’s my hope that every person on this heating planet of ours will realise the urgency of the climate crisis. It’s a necessity to halt rising temperatures before it’s too late for the Mountain pygmy possum, which has become an icon of the Australian Alps, and indeed for many creatures on this planet, ourselves included.


‘Adventures in Climate Science: Scientists’ Tales From the Frontiers of Climate Change’, 2023, edited by Wendy Bruere, published by Woodslane Press with support from Paddy Pallin. 

Bringing together science and adventure, the anthology features 15 stories by scientists from around the world. With tales of falling into crevasses, facing sharks, surviving cyclones, chasing pirates on the high seas, and more, the contributors explore the science behind exactly what is happening as the world warms.

Available from Paddy Pallin, Australian and New Zealand bookstores and online at Woodslane Press


Photos supplied by Linda Broome