New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2008) 32(2): 177- 185

Spatial variation in impacts of brushtail possums on two Loranthaceous mistletoe species

Research Article
Peter J. Sweetapple  
  1. Landcare Research, PO Box 40, Lincoln 7640, New Zealand

Browsing by introduced brushtail possums is linked to major declines in mistletoe abundance in New Zealand, yet in some areas mistletoes persist, apparently unaffected by the presence of possums. To determine the cause of this spatial variation in impact I investigated the abundance and condition (crown dieback and extent of possum browse) of two mistletoes (Alepis flavida, Peraxilla tetrapetala) and abundance and diet of possums in two mountain beech (Nothofagus solandri var. cliffortioides) forests in the central-eastern South Island of New Zealand. Mistletoe is common and there are long-established uncontrolled possum populations in both forests. Mistletoes were abundant (216–1359 per hectare) and important in possum diet (41–59% of total diet), but possum density was low (c. 2 per hectare) in both areas. Possum impacts were slight with low browse frequencies and intensities over much of the study sites. However, impacts were significantly greater at a forest margin, where possum abundance was highest, and at a high-altitude site where mistletoe density was lowest. Mistletoe crown dieback was inversely proportional to intensity of possum browsing. These results suggest that the persistence of abundant mistletoe populations at these sites is due to mistletoe productivity matching or exceeding consumption by possums in these forests of low possum-carrying capacity, rather than low possum preference for the local mistletoe populations.