To assess the effect of possum browse on plant growth, an index of the amount of foliage on about 50 trees of Fuchsia excorticata and the number of trees that died or were completely defoliated was measured at five sites in South Westland over 5 years. This index was compared to possum density indices taken at each site each year. At one site, possums were reduced from a high density about 6 months before the final measurement. The degree of defoliation of fuchsia was significantly related to the density of possums at each site.
We examined possum trapping data collected from 1945 to 1989 in the Pararaki catchment to assess whether there was any evidence for a major natural decline in possum numbers several decades after colonisation and whether the population has subsequently shown any long-term trend in abundance. The catchment was probably colonised by possums around 1915-20. We found evidence for a major decline (c. 80%) in possum numbers between 1945 and 1965. There was no significant trend in our trap catches from 1965 to 1976, but in 1977 there was a further abrupt decline.
Brushtail possums began colonising a rata/kamahi forest in the Taramakau catchment, Westland, about 1950 and by 1973 had caused widespread conspicuous canopy defoliation. They were poisoned in one block of this forest in 1970, at about the time they reached peak density, and again in 1974. In an adjacent block they were poisoned in 1974 only. A survey of forest canopy condition in 1985 showed that, in the block poisoned at peak density, 21% of the basal area of palatable trees had died compared with 47% in the block where poisoning was deferred for 4 years.
Increased dieback in Westland rata (Metrosideros umbellata)-kamahi (Weinmannia racemosa) forests has been linked to the build-up of populations of the Australian brush-tailed possum (Trichosurus vulpecula). Within these forests young even-aged stands are observed to be more resilient to dieback than older stands. The effect of possum browsing on individual rata trees was related to the level of defoliation. Trees which had been not or only lightly browsed maintained intact canopies.
Approximately 50,000 ha of native wet Metrosideros forest on the island of Hawai'i experienced a drastic reduction (dieback) of the tree canopy between 1954 and 1977. Two general hypotheses have previously been suggested to explain this phenomenon: 1) Metrosideros dieback has resulted from recently introduced pathogens, and 2) the dieback has naturally occurred previously in Hawai'i, and is related to plant succession under periodic conditions of climatic instability which effect the soil moisture regime.