SEVEN young members of a family torn apart by predators near Bendigo could soon roam free in a win that could help shore up numbers of their threatened species.
Conservationists saved the brush-tailed phascogales - a small, reclusive tree-dwelling species of marsupial - while auditing a network of 450 nesting boxes in October.
Karen Thomas was the person who found them and said it was likely the mother had been killed by a predator.
"We found one baby clinging to a tree, underneath a nearby sugar glider's nest, which we thought was really bizarre behaviour," she said.
It was then that conservationists looked in a nearby phascogale nesting box and realised the mother was missing.
Mothers do not leave their babies' sides during the day time.
"I noticed how cold the (other) babies were. They cannot regulate their body heat when they are young," Ms Thomas said.
Conservationists with licences to handle native wildlife removed the babies.
Below: feeding time for baby phascogales (video)
The six rescued baby males and one female will likely be released back into the wild south of Bendigo soon, Ms Thomas said.
They will return to a forest that is expected to flourish during a wetter than average summer.
The rains should help boost numbers of bugs, lizards and other prey that have been stressed by recent dry years, Ms Thomas said.
It is unclear exactly how many remain in central Victoria's forests, though one long-term study indicates there can be a three-year lag between good rains and booms in phascogale populations.
The same study showed a long-term decline in the overall Victorian population, which was inherently unstable anyway.
Every male phascogale dies in July and August after an exhausting breeding season in which their 20cm-long bodies are ravaged by stress.
Females often only live for two years, adding to the fragility of the species.
The six rescued males will probably roam widely in search of food and territory once released, while the female would usually find a nest close to where her mother chose to rear her young.
She should give birth to her own in late winter and Ms Thomas said she would run a very neat and elaborately built nest.
"Mum will get sick of the kids sometimes. They feed on milk for a long time so you can imagine, if she can have up to eight, so you can imagine she might need a break every so often," Ms Thomas said.
"I've actually come across pairs of nest boxes with mum in one and her babies in the other."
The female will likely choose to nest in a tree-hollow, should she find one, though they can be hard to track down among the region's young forests.
Most older, hollow-bearing trees have been cut down since European settlement, leaving a shortage. Many phascogales now rely on networks of human-made nest boxes maintained by conservationists.
There's another reason phascogales like older trees, Ms Thomas said. They have more crevices containing food.
Phascogales do not hunt as much as scavenge and will "work" a tree canopy by searching hollows and loosened bark for insects, reptiles and bird eggs.
They will also search leaf litter and fallen branches on the forest floor for food.
Their search begins at dusk and continues all night.
Scavenging canopies keeps them out of the way of predators like foxes, even if they can still be at risk from birds-of prey like powerful owls.
While the seven phascogales rescued last month may well expect good supplies of food during their short lifetimes thanks to the wet weather outlook, conservationists are warning the species' long term future is looking bleak.
Scientists at Southern Cross University and the Australian National University recently found phascogales' Victorian habitat could contract by 67 per cent by 2075 if carbon emissions remain high and severe climate change follows.
Under that worst-case scenario, phascogales would lose suitable habitats like Bendigo's box-ironbark forests, with other populations around Nillumbik and Seymour also badly affected.
Forests around Daylesford and the Macedon Ranges would become important refuges if that happens, because they would become of the changing climate.
The researchers predicted that a low carbon emissions future would still force habitats to contract by 12 per cent, just over half of which would be offset by climatic changes to other forest areas.
Under that scenario, the climate in Bendigo and most of the phascogale's central Victorian habitat would remain suitable, the researchers predicted.
Ms Thomas, who takes every opportunity to raise awareness about phascogales, said the message she gives is one all central Victorians should think about.
"It's fantastic we still have this threatened species in our bushland. Wouldn't it be a shame if, on our watch, they became extinct here in Bendigo?"
Research cited in this article appears in the October edition of academic journal The Victorian Naturalist.