ECOLOGISTS have fired up their chainsaws to help save a mysterious tree-dwelling native marsupial.
But far from cutting down trees, they are carving new homes into trunks that could save unique species including a small, threatened species called the brush tailed phascogale.
And the best thing is that phascogales and sugar gliders love them, researchers at Southern Cross University have proven.
Phascogale numbers have been decimated in the past by centuries of land clearing that eradicated most trees old enough to have formed nesting hollows.
Trees form natural hollows over hundreds of years and environmentalists have tried to deal with the housing shortage by building thousands of specially designed nest boxes installed in trees.
Hollow shortages put extra pressure on phascogale because the species' numbers are unstable anyway.
Every year, all male phascogales in existence die of stress-induced illnesses following their vigorous mating season. Populations can expand and shrink dramatically in a matter of years.
Artificial nest boxes are popular with phascogales and sugar gliders but the structures do have shortcomings, including a reputation for sub-par insulation.
Recent research in forests around Bendigo has shown that nest boxes provide no relief from the heat on 40 degree summer days.
Some conservationists have reported seeing the normally nocturnal phascogales leaving their nest boxes on very hot days.
It could be a sign of heat stress and it definitely increases the risk of the animals being killed by predators.
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New Southern Cross University research to be published in journal Forest Ecology and Management has asked whether "chainsaw hollows" might hold the answer.
Researchers used chainsaws to carve 45 hollows into trees across central Victoria for the two-and-a-half-year research project.
Each was installed with specially designed wooden faceplates complete with entrances big enough to allow phascogales and sugar gliders in, but keep predators like owls out.
The hollows were a hit.
Phascogales showed a clear preference for them over nest boxes, even if few mothers appeared to find them suitable for raising their young in.
One of the team's camera traps caught a phascogale inspecting one tree hollow just four days after it was installed.
Researchers also gained valuable insights into what kind of chainsaw hollows both phascogales and sugar gliders prefer.
The courser the bark, the more phascogales liked them - perhaps because they had more grip as they darted in and out on nighttime foraging trips - researchers found.
Yet chainsaw hollows also brought drawbacks.
Some tree species damaged the hollow's plates as bark regrew, which researchers said was a sign that maintenance would be needed over time to keep them in good shape.
None of the trees used in the study died.
Others had problems with water leaking in or of moisture building up.
"The contents of three chainsaw hollows was so wet that old nesting material had turned into mud-like material," the researchers wrote in their paper.
The researchers said it remained unclear whether moisture build-up was a serious problem.
Ultimately, chainsaw hollows were no substitute for those that formed naturally.
They could prove necessary during the wait for natural tree hollows to form though, lead researcher William Terry said.
"It's really that we come up with a way to offset the loss of natural tree hollows if we are going to have any chance at saving threatened species," he told the Bendigo Advertiser.
The research is expected to appear in the Forest Ecology and Management's June edition.
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