A sugar glider gripping to a tree trunk. Image Credit: Shuttershock/CKIZE

Australia's marsupial gliders

  • BY Natsumi Penberthy |
  • October 04, 2017

Rather than merely climb, some ingenious possums have taken to the air to swoop between the trees of Australian forests.

FIFTEEN MILLION years ago, much of Australia was still covered in rainforest. Tree-dwelling mammals had no trouble leaping from branch to branch through the dense canopy. Over geologic time, however, as the continent drifted north, the lush vegetation receded, tree cover thinned and mammals in the canopy had to leap further and further. It was then that some marsupials evolved the ability to glide using a membrane of skin called a patagium, which today allows some to swoop as far as 100m.

Of the world's 60-odd gliding mammals, six are found in Australia. These species range from the 1.7kg greater glider to the feathertail glider, the world's smallest, which weighs just 10-15g. It's possible that a few million years down the line we may have even more gliders, because some possums (such as the lemuroid ring-tailed) may be partway through the process of evolving their own patagia.

1. Greater glider

Petauroides volans

greater glider

(Image Credit: Kevin Stead)

Body length: 35-46cm*

Frequently seen during spotlight surveys along the Great Dividing Range, the greater glider is Australia's largest. It has long, dense fur, ranging in colour from creamy grey to black. It rarely vocalises and feeds almost exclusively on gum leaves.

2. Sugar glider

Petaurus breviceps

sugar glider

(Image Credit: Kevin Stead)

Body length: 16-21cm

The most common and wide-spread species, it is found across a variety of habitats in Australia and New Guinea, including tall wet forests and open wood-lands. It makes a yapping sound like a small dog, and has become popular in the legal pet trade, particularly in the USA.

3. Yellow-bellied glider

Petaurus australis

yellow-bellied glider

(Image Credit: Kevin Stead)

Body length: 24-31cm

Sometimes called the fluffy glider, it is easily identified by its buttermilk-coloured belly. It chews holes in gum trees in order to lick the weeping sap; in northern Queensland it appears to only do this on red mahogany trees. Its loud shriek can be heard hundreds of metres away.

4. Squirrel glider

Petaurus norfolcensis

squirrel glider

(Image Credit: Kevin Stead)

Body length: 18-23cm

The squirrel glider is slightly larger than the sugar glider and has a much fluffier tail. Due to a mistake with the labelling of an early museum specimen, its scientific name refers to Norfolk Island. The creature isn't found there, but in the forests and woodlands of eastern Australia.

5. Feathertail glider

Acrobates pygmaeus

feathertail glider

(Image Credit: Kevin Stead)

Body length: 6.5-8cm

With a scientific name that means the pygmy acrobat, the fast-moving feathertail is the smallest gliding possum. Its feather-like tail is about as long as its body. Sweat glands on its feet create surface tension, so the footpads act like suction cups and can stick to glass.

6. Mahogany gliders

Petaurus gracilis

Mahogany gliders

(Image Credit: Kevin Stead)

Body length: 22.5-27.5cm

Perilously endangered, the mahogany glider has a limited distribution in tea-tree swamps, and eucalypt/grass tree wood-lands near Cardwell in northern Queensland. It was rediscovered in 1989, having been thought extinct for more than a century.