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.
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.
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.
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.