The fairy and the goblin

The fairy and the goblin

Picture yourself in a forest. Damp green mosses clothe giant trees, veiled in slow swirling columns of mist. The varied calls of lyrebirds and parrots echo through the woody labyrinth as you wade through a waist-deep sea of ferns which ripple and sway against the trunks of the mighty Mountain Ash. A pantheon of small creatures march at your feet; harvestmen, millipedes, stag beetles and crickets, a tide of colours and shapes that defies imagination.

A carpet of fungi sprouts from the earth, blanketing the forest floor in a dreamy mosaic of vivid shapes and colours, from fluorescent azure toadstools, to bright auburn cup-fungi and pale translucent mushrooms with an eerie jade glow, visible only on moonless nights. There is perhaps no place but this where one can so seamlessly wander into the woods of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, or stray into the fairy forests from the folklore of old. Few places are as enchanting as the ancient enduring citadels we know as the wet temperate rainforests of Victoria’s central highlands.

Forests of towering Mountain Ash are ideal homes for the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum, or Fairy Possum, and the rare insect it plays host to, the Goblin Flea.

High above the bustling forest floor is an equally busy canopy of emerald leaves and lichen-covered branches. It is in this cool, moist skyscape that one of Australia’s rarest mammals dwells with what is perhaps also its rarest insect. Leadbeater’s Possum, often called the Fairy Possum, calls this place home. The Fairy Possum is not alone though, for amongst its soft, velvety fur lives the equally rare Goblin Flea (Stephanocircus domrowi): an insect so highly adapted for life alongside the Leadbeater’s Possum that it is found nowhere else.

The Goblin Flea is a shy insect and is not known to cause any damage to its tiny host, the Fairy Possum. Its remarkable existence is probably due to the long history these two animals have shared together, having evolved side by side for countless millennia.

Beginning life at the bottom of a Fairy Possum’s nest, the peculiar Goblin Flea is one of Australia’s rarest insects. Image: Mackenzie Kwak

Goblin Fleas are oddly shaped little insects. Their bodies are flat as though they have been placed on their sides and crushed between the pages of a heavy book. They are covered in hair, much like a goblin might be, and their heads are crowned with a small helmet lined with points along its rim. They could hardly be called beautiful, yet are not ugly either. It is perhaps safest to simply describe them as peculiar.

The Goblin Flea begins its life as a tiny egg at the bottom of the Fairy Possum’s nest. It hatches into a small grub and spends its childhood eating the flakes of dead skin and detritus which fall to the bottom of the nest, effectively cleaning up after the Fairy Possum and keeping the home more-or-less tidy. Once the grub has grown big enough and childhood is at an end, it forms a cocoon wherein it will spend its adolescent years developing into an adult, much like a caterpillar does when becoming a butterfly. In good time, the flea reaches adulthood and emerges from its cocoon fully-grown, at which point it finds the nearest Fairy Possum and proceeds to dive into the cloaks of fur which cover it.

Artist Frederick McCoy’s impression of a Leadbeater’s Possum, or Fairy Possum, from the late 1800s. Image: McCoy, Frederick [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Both the Fairy Possum and the Goblin Flea are dependent on ancient forests. They only dwell in the oldest of trees; the antique giants more than a century old with an abundance of hollows dotting their trunks and branches. Both also live in great families, the Fairy Possum in clans of ten or more and the Goblin Flea in communities numbering many dozens of individuals. If these families grow too small, the Fairy Possum and Goblin Flea can have immense difficulties finding suitable partners and they can disappear from whole forests. This has meant that communities of the possums and fleas have vanished from much of their former range and are now incredibly rare. There may be only a few hundred Goblin Fleas left, riding along on the last remaining Fairy Possums.

Fairies and goblins of folklore are often presented as mischievous and occasionally even malevolent beings who take pleasure in bothering people. The Fairy Possum and the Goblin Flea exemplify neither of these qualities. They are gentle creatures, wary of humans but nonetheless imperilled by them. Unfortunately for both, their homes are under threat as logging and fire shrink their ancient forests and make their existence ever more precarious. If we do not act to save their homes, these enchanting creatures will join the other mystical beings of folklore, becoming nothing more than stories we tell our children.

Want to learn more about the Fairy Possum and the Goblin Flea? Author Mackenzie Kwak has created three fascinating problem-solving activities for your children or students to complete. Download and print the activities here.

Mackenzie Kwak

Mackenzie Kwak is a zoologist with a broad interest in Australia's diverse flora and fauna. His research focuses on the biogeography, systematics and ecology of Australasian ectoparasites, particularly ticks, fleas and lice.

There are 11 comments on this post
  1. Steve Meacher
    April 24, 2018, 7:40 am

    Great article and very unusual to focus on the flea.

    One spelling error – waste-deep should be waist-deep.

  2. Ian Rainbow
    April 25, 2018, 2:33 pm

    Wonderfully descriptive writing, Mackenzie! Nicely pitched, no hyperbole, full of information with a message conveyed very persuasively. Right up there with Tolkien for colour, but also matching the likes of E.O. Wilson and William Stolzenberg. The latter makes readable and entertaining quite complex and detailed literature surveys of ecological subjects.
    Should you add science journalism to your interests and skillset?

  3. Annie
    April 25, 2018, 3:21 pm

    Beautifully written. Thanks for taking this reader into a magical realm that does exist beyond our imagination and hope it will do so for the continuation of their intriguing symbiotic relationship.

  4. April 26, 2018, 10:07 am

    Enjoyed your piece, we’re trying to establish a Nature Link between Healesville and Phillip Island, which was the habitat for the lowland Leadbeater’s, as per the McCoy monograph you included and other early writings. I’m a vet and own Harewood, heritage property at the estuary of Cardinia Creek which would be on this Nature Link. Maybe there would be some opportunities for some synergy?

    Thanks for your article,

    Pat

    • May 09, 2018, 1:55 pm

      Hi Pat,
      I’d love to collaborate on something with you!
      You project looks ambitious but none the less fantastic and there would be great scope for natural history education and communication!
      cheers,
      Mackenzie

  5. May 05, 2018, 6:39 pm

    Just love this fascinating story of the fairy and the goblin. Beee-yootifully written.
    So good to see a scientist with such skills in writting and communicating the intricacies of nature.
    Thanks Mackenzie.

  6. May 15, 2018, 9:36 am

    Hi Mackenzie, great piece. You might enjoy this article I read on the weekend about a 43 year-old trap door spider and his researcher https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2018/05/01/the-extraordinary-life-and-death-of-the-worlds-oldest-known-spider/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.65854de7128b Best, Jo

  7. Peter Fagg
    May 16, 2018, 9:11 pm

    Very poetic but somewhat wayward with key facts.

    The claim that the Leadbeater’s possum is ‘Australia’s rarest mammal’ is not correct – many other species are rarer.

    Populations: confirmed colonies ( as at Sept 2017) tally at least 680, and with at least 3 animals per colony, that is over 2040; and even 6800 if Mackenzie’s estimate of 10 or more per colony is correct. In addition, many colonies remain to be found in national parks in the Central Highlands, as most surveys to date have concentrated on state forests. Statements like ‘the last remaining Fairy Possums’ are clearly wrong.

    ‘Dependent on ancient forests’? Not really, it has been found by scientists in eucalypt regrowth less than 20 yrs old.

    It is not ‘under threat from logging’, as all known colonies are protected by a reserve of at least 12 hectares, and planned coupes are checked before harvesting starts. Bushfire, however, can significantly reduce populations, as we saw in 2009.

    “Remember the Wild” needs to have their submitted articles properly checked by someone who is qualified.

    • Viv
      May 17, 2018, 8:07 pm

      Using population estimates from the VicForests website barely exemplifies a qualified opinion. Even if those figures are correct, population decline, loss of hollow bearing trees and stags, and the overall predicted future collapse of mountain ash forests, is a far more pressing issue for Leadbeater’s possums than their estimated population size as at Sept 2017. A fraction of the LBPs in proposed coupes have been identified by VicForests’ surveyors, most have been protected as a result of the tireless work of citizen scientists and ARI. Bushfires and logging are interconnected; some of the country’s leading scientists have demonstrated the effect of logging on altered fire regimes in the Central Highlands.

      • Peter Fagg
        May 19, 2018, 6:04 pm

        The figure on the VicForests website is confirmed colonies – by , as you say ARI, citizen scientists, and VF – I believe ARI would confirm that figure. If you have other (confirmed) figures please let tell me.
        The future Ash forest ecosystem collapse scenario as proposed by ANU is totally flawed, as pointed out by Melb Uni Prof of Forestry Rod Keenan recently.
        Bushfires are way more of a threat to the LBPs than logging. Once again the ANU research that young forests burn more strongly than older forests, has been disputed by Victorian scientists not connected with industry. However the fact is, if a fire gets going in Ash forests like on Black Saturday, the age of the forest is immaterial – it al burns intensely.

      • Mark Poynter
        May 22, 2018, 11:25 am

        The misconception that the mountain ash ecosystem is facing imminent collapse is based on one flawed ANU research paper (Burns et 2015) which amongst a range of errors wrongly asserted that 80% of these forests were to be clear-felled. The same error was repeated recently in another paper by Lindenmayer and Sato (2018) despite past efforts to point out to the ANU that the correct figure is that around 30% is being managed on an 80-year cycle of logging and regeneration as per the Victorian Government’s Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory Group Final Report (2014). So… in fact 70% of the forest is never to be logged.

        Most of the recently detected hundreds of new possum colonies have been found in wood production forests comprising just 6 – 10% of the possum’s potential habitat range – it seems that already reserved forests aren’t being surveyed to anywhere near the same extent – and when these colony numbers are extrapolated across the full habitat range, the possum’s population appears to be pretty healthy. That is why the Federal Government is currently reviewing its ‘critically endangered’ status. It is pretty sad that realities such as these are simply ignored in the media discussion surrounding the possum thereby promulgating such ‘over-the-top’ fears about its future as are exemplified in this article and its comments.

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