SYDNEY, March 27 (UPI) -- Australian scientists say a rare species of tiny possum that might be extinct within in a decade could be the continent's first climate change victim.
A rise in temperature of 2 degrees Fahrenheit could doom the mountain pygmy possum, a creature that has been a part of the Australian ecosystem for more than 25 million years but whose numbers have fallen, they said.
Only around 2,000-2,600 of the 5-inch-long creatures are believed to remain in a mountain range that extends between New South Wales and Victoria states, researchers said, a number that puts them at risk of extinction.
"There are so many ways that a change in temperature can spell doom for these possums in those environments," Michael Archer, a paleontologist and naturalist at the University of New South Wales, told Britain's The Guardian newspaper.
The animals hibernate in rock piles during winter, with snow acting as an insulator that prevents the rock piles from growing too cold and causing the animals to freeze.
"With even a 1-degree rise in annual average temperature, we're likely to lose the snow," Archer said. "The insulation is the difference between life and death in that habitat."
A lack of snow could also cause the possums to come out of hibernation before the insects and fruits they feed on are available, leading to starvation, the researchers said.
The researchers said they would attempt to establish a breeding colony in the lowland rainforests to re-acclimatize the possums to warmer temperatures.
"If we don't do this, it's pretty much guaranteed we're going to lose this possum to climate change," Archer said.