Successful breeding of the world’s smallest gliders

By Naomi Russo 29 June 2015
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Seven exquisitely small feather-tail glider juveniles have emerged from their nest boxes at Taronga Zoo this week

SEVEN TINY feather-tail glider joeys have left their nesting boxes this week, eager to explore their Taronga Zoo exhibit. Part of the world’s smallest gliding marsupials, these little joeys are only half the size of a grain of rice at birth, but grow to about one centimetre long before leaving their mother’s pouch. The joeys were discovered in the Taronga Zoo nest boxes recently, and are estimated to be 13 or 14 weeks old.

Though zoos all over the world can now boast a population of feather-tail gliders, Taronga Zoo was the first to breed these tiny gliders in captivity. In fact, in the last decade they have bred over 200 individuals.

Tiny gliders sent around the world

Australian Fauna Supervisor Vanessa Stebbings says that these gliders “sometimes move on to other Zoos to be part of their breeding programs and be ambassadors so people can learn about this amazing Australian marsupial. Most people haven’t been aware of them since they came off the 1 cent coin”.

In 1999, Taronga Zoo moved some of their gliders to the New Zoo in Poznan, Poland, the first European zoo to exhibit feather-tail gliders. Since then the Taronga-cum-Poznan gliders and their offspring have been sent around Europe to live in various zoos.

The juveniles at Taronga, now 4.5–5cm long, can no longer live in their mother’s pouches. Instead, “the mothers leave them in a communal nest, taking turns watching over the joeys,” says Rob Dockerill, one of Taronga’s fauna keepers. This happens both in captivity and in the wild.

Fertile feather-tails?

As to why Taronga Zoo has such unprecedented luck with breeding these tiny little Australians, Vanessa isn’t too sure. “A lot of it is to do with luck. It might be because we keep them in the nocturnal house, or our breeding group is mostly females with few males. We also have quite a large breeding group which helps.”

Whatever it is, it’s working and visitors to the nightlife exhibit have the chance to see these little animals up close. In 2011 a briefcase was designed to transport the mini gliders and make them available for encounters with visitors.

“The briefcase has little segments and even little seatbelts in it so the gliders can safely be transported around the Zoo either for encounters or to be taken to the Wildlife Hospital for a health check-up,” says Stebbings.