A WILDLIFE researcher has watched the unbridled joy of six orphans released back into the wild.
The phascogales - which are part of a small, tree-dwelling species at risk of being wiped out in much of central Victoria - were rescued in forests south of Bendigo last October.
Their mother was likely killed by a predator.
The babies were clinging to life when a researcher happened to check a nest box at exactly the right moment while doing a wildlife survey.
It is incredibly rare to find baby phascogales alive after their mothers' deaths, Southern Cross University researcher William Terry said.
"Young are orphaned all the time but I know of only two rescues in the state at the moment," he said.
One of the rescued phascogales died but Mr Terry successfully hand-reared the others.
He released them back into central Victoria over the weekend, on a property protected from cats and other feral predators.
Below: feeding time for baby phascogales (video)
"Honestly, when they came out of the box I could see the excitement in their eyes," Mr Terry said.
"They've been stuck in an enclosure that's only a couple of metres big. When they came out they ran straight up the top of the tree to start searching for bugs.
"We had been worried they would not be able to find food because their mother had not taught them but it was completely the opposite. Instinct kicked in."
That night, it was like the forest was snowing bark because so many were foraging in a single tree, Mr Terry said.
"I watched them until 2am and it was almost like they were playing," he said.
"I wasn't sure if they were trying to grab insects in the air or whether it was frolicking, but there were a few times there when some bounced off the tree and did flips."
Mr Terry thanked community researchers including Bendigo's Karen Thomas, who first found the phascogales, saving them from death.
Phascogales are classed as threatened in Victoria.
That is partly because so much of Victoria's forests have been cut down since colonisation, leaving them without areas to roam or enough trees old enough to have formed the hollows they nest in.
A changing climate has not helped. A recent study found that their range would shrink 67 per cent by 2075 under a worst-case climate change scenario.
IN OTHER NEWS:
But phascogales' main threat is their own sex-lives. Their 20cm-long bodies cannot handle the stresses of their frantic breeding season and the males die in their first year of life.
"It's sad. When they do die it's from stomach ulcers. It's such a painful way to go," Mr Terry said.
He and a friend are monitoring them all daily through the first week of their release. None appear to have become easy pickings for predators.
"It's only been a few days but there are really promising signs that they are going to survive," Mr Terry said.
He has attached radio collars to three of the males to see how far they roam.
They will likely spend the next few months establishing a home range and adding weight in preparation for May's breeding season.
The one female of the group will likely stay close to her release site and, if everything goes to plan, be busy caring for her own brood over spring.