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Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 8:28 EDT

Sugar Glider

The Sugar Glider (Petaurus breviceps), sometimes called the Flying Sugar, is a small gliding possum. It is native to eastern and northern mainland Australia, New Guinea, and the Bismarck Archipelago, and introduced to Tasmania.

Physical description

The Sugar Glider is around 6.3 to 7.5 in (16 to 20 cm) long, with a tail almost as long as the body. It weighs between 3 and 5.3 oz (90 to 150 g). The fur is generally pearl grey, with black and cream patches at the base of the black or grey ears. Other color variations include leucistic and albino recessive traits. The tail tapers only moderately. The last quarter of the tail is black, often with a dark tip. The muzzle is short and rounded. Northern forms tend to be brown colored rather than grey.

The most noticeable features of its anatomy are the twin skin membranes called patagium, which extend from the fifth finger of the forelimb back to the first toe of the hind foot. These are inconspicuous when the Sugar Glider is at rest. It merely looks a little flabby, as though it had lost a lot of weight recently. The membranes are used to glide between trees. When fully extended they form an aerodynamic surface the size of a large handkerchief.

The gliding membranes are primarily used as an efficient way to get to food resources. They may also, as a secondary function; help the Sugar Glider escape predators. Its predators are goannas, introduced foxes and cats, and the marsupial carnivores. The ability to glide from tree to tree is clearly of little value with regard to the Sugar Glider’s avian predators.

Although its aerial adaptation looks rather clumsy in comparison to the highly specialized limbs of birds and bats, the Sugar Glider can glide for a surprisingly long distance. Flights have been measured at over 55 yards (50 meters). It steers effectively by curving one or other of the patagium. It uses its hind legs to thrust powerfully away from a tree. Then about 3 yards (3 meters) from the destination tree trunk, brings its hind legs up close to the body and swoops upwards to make contact with all four limbs together.

Habitat

The Sugar Glider can occupy any area where there are tree hollows for shelter and sufficient food. Its diet varies considerably with both geography and the changing seasons, but the main items are the sap of acacias and certain Eucalypts, nectar, pollen, and arthropods. It is difficult to see in the wild, being small, wary, and nocturnal. A sure sign of its presence is the stripping of bark and tooth marks left in the soft, green shoots of acacia trees.

It lives in groups of up to 7 adults, with the current season’s young, all sharing a nest and defending their territory. Adult males mark the territory with saliva and with scent glands, and also mark members of the group with the scent produced by separate glands on the forehead and chest. Visitors, which lack the appropriate scent marking, are expelled violently. The dominant male mates more frequently with the female of the group than the other males, and does most of the scent marking. When an adult member of the group dies, it is normally replaced. It is replaced by the group’s own offspring if female, but by an outsider if male.

Conservation status

Unlike many native animals, particularly smaller ones, the Sugar Glider is not endangered. Despite the massive loss of natural habitat in Australia over the last 200 years, it is adaptable and capable of living in surprisingly small patches of remnant bush. The Sugar Glider is protected by law in Australia, where it is illegal to keep them as pets, or to capture or sell them without a license.

Sugar Gliders as pets

The Sugar Glider is a popular pet because of its lively and inquisitive nature; with plenty of attention, it bonds well to human companions. It requires a special diet that includes vitamin and calcium supplements, and insects.

Sugar Glider