One of the most remarkable features of the feathertail glider is its ability to glide with the aid of its gliding membrane. This gliding ability is further enhanced by the feather-like arrangement of hairs on the tail (3) (6). The tail not only provides an increased surface area for gliding, but also serves as a rudder, helping the feathertail glider to steer and brake (6).
The feathertail glider can perform quite impressive aerial acrobatic feats, as suggested by its scientific name, Acrobates pygmaeus, which means ‘pygmy acrobat’ (2) (3). Although it typically glides in a direct path, the feathertail glider can also spiral around a tree trunk before it lands (6). Despite its small size, this species can glide for distances of over 30 metres (2).
The ability to glide means that the feathertail glider does not need to descend to the ground when foraging, which would expose it to a higher risk of predation. It also enables the feathertail glider to escape predators by gliding away, and makes it more difficult for predators to track it since it does not create continuous scent trails when moving about. Gliding is also a more efficient form of locomotion than having to climb down, cross the ground and climb up again into the trees (4) (6).
As well as being able to glide, the feathertail glider is a fast, agile climber and is well adapted for life in the trees. Its prehensile tail gives good grip (5) (6), and its large eyes help it to navigate about its complex three-dimensional environment (6). In addition, the tips of its toes are expanded and have deeply ridged grooves which provide traction and grip while climbing smooth Eucalyptus trees (3) (4) (5) (6). These ‘suction pad’ toes also assist when landing after a glide, and their gripping ability is further enhanced by sweat glands at the base of the grooves, which moisten the pads. The amazing adhesive gripping ability of the feathertail glider is demonstrated by the fact that it is able to climb up vertical panes of glass (4) (5) (6).
The feathertail glider is largely nocturnal, emerging from its nesting hollow at dusk to forage (2) (3) (5). The nest of this species is a spherical construction of leaves and bark fibres, built in a small tree hole, or sometimes in an artificial nesting box or even a telephone junction box (3) (4) (5) (8). A social species, the feathertail glider may sometimes nest together in groups of up to 30 individuals (2), although groups of 2 to 5 may be more common (3). Large aggregations of up to 40 feathertail gliders have also been seen feeding together at flowering trees (5).
As an adaptation to conserve energy when it is cold, the feathertail glider may undergo periods of torpor, during which its body temperature and metabolic rate drop (2) (3) (4) (5). It also saves energy and reduces heat loss by curling into a ball, wrapping its tail around itself, and by huddling together in groups (2).
In some parts of its range, the feathertail glider can breed at any time of year, while in more southern areas births tend to be more seasonal, usually occurring between July and January (2) (3) (4) (5). The female feathertail glider may give birth to up to four young at a time, although typically only two survive to weaning (3) (4). Most females have up to two or sometimes three litters per year (2) (3) (4) (5).
As in other marsupials, the newborn feathertail gliders are tiny and are born at a very early stage of development, with their eyes closed and lacking fur (4). The young are suckled within the female’s pouch, where they remain for about 60 to 65 days, after which they are left in the nest (3) (4). Once well furred, the young may also ride on the female’s back (3).
An interesting aspect of the feathertail glider’s reproduction is that it is capable of embryonic diapause (2) (3) (4). Almost immediately after giving birth, the female feathertail glider will mate again, but the new embryos will become dormant until the current young in the pouch are weaned, at about 100 days old (3) (4) (5). This means that a second litter can be born almost immediately after the first is weaned (3).
After weaning, the young feathertail gliders remain with the female while the second litter is raised (3) (4). Female feathertail gliders usually reach sexual maturity at about 8 months, and males by about 12 to 18 months (3). This species has been known to live to at least seven years old in captivity (3), although the usual lifespan is closer to two to three years (4).
The diet of the feathertail glider comprises insects, fruit, nectar, pollen, fungi and seeds, as well as sap, gum and honeydew (2) (3) (4). Pollen provides the feathertail glider with a major source of protein, and it has a long, brush-tipped tongue as an adaptation to extracting pollen and nectar (2) (4) (5). The feathertail glider is likely to be important in pollinating native plants (5).