Sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps)
|Also known as:||lesser flying phalanger, lesser flying squirrel, lesser glider, short-headed flying phalanger|
|Size||Head-body length: 15 - 21 cm (2)|
Tail length: 16.5 - 21 cm (2)
|Weight||79 - 170 g (2) (3)|
Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The smallest and by far the most common of the Petaurus gliders (4), the sugar glider is a small, softly-furred possum with a bushy, prehensile tail (2) (3) (5). Like other gliders, it possesses a thin, furred membrane, known as a ‘patagium’, which stretches from the wrist to the ankle and which can be seen as a wavy line along the body when not in use (2) (3) (4) (6). The feet are hand-like, able to grasp branches, aided by an opposable toe on the hindfoot (2) (6), and the second and third toes of the hindfoot are fused, with a split claw that is used in grooming (2). The body of the sugar glider is light grey, paler on the underparts, with a distinct black stripe running from the nose to the rump, and a black line on each side of the face (2) (3) (5) (6). The tail sometimes has a white tip (2) (5). The mature male sugar glider can be distinguished by an almost bare patch in the middle of the forehead, over the frontal gland (5).
The sugar glider has a distinctive alarm call, said to resemble the yapping of a dog (2) (3) (5) (6). Other calls include a high-pitched cry (3), and buzzing, screaming and hissing sounds (4). A number of subspecies are recognised (3) (5) (7), with those in the northern parts of the range generally being smaller than those in the south (4) (5).
The sugar glider is widespread across much of Australia, as well as in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and on surrounding islands (1) (3) (5) (6). The species was also introduced to Tasmania in 1835, where it has spread across the island (3) (4) (5).
The sugar glider occurs in a variety of forest types, including rainforest, eucalypt forest and woodland, and may also be found in plantations, rural gardens, and along roadsides (1) (2) (4) (5).
An arboreal species, the sugar glider uses the membrane along its body to glide up to 50 metres or more between trees (2) (3) (5) (6). It is quite agile in the air, using the tail to help control the direction of the glide, and swooping upwards at the last moment to land with precision, using large claws to help it cling on (5) (6). Foraging usually takes place at night, the diet consisting mainly of gum and sap, obtained by chiselling into trees with the large incisor teeth (2) (4) (5) (6). Good sap-feeding sites may be vigorously defended (6). A range of other items are also eaten, including blossoms, nectar, pollen, insects, spiders, and even small birds and mammals (2) (3) (5) (6).
The sugar glider shelters by day in a hollow, lined with leaves, which are transported to the nest held coiled in the tail (3) (5). Groups of up to seven or more adults and young may share the nest, huddling together to keep warm, and even entering short periods of torpor during cold weather (2) (3) (4) (6). Led by a dominant male, the group uses a complex system of scent-marking to recognise other group members and to mark the territory, which is aggressively defended against intruders (2) (3) (4) (5).
Breeding may occur throughout the year in the north, but peaks between June and November in the south, usually occurring when insects, an important source of protein, are abundant. The female sugar glider gives birth to one or two young after a gestation period of around 16 days, and, like most other marsupials, the young develop within a pouch, where they attach to a nipple for about 40 days. The young first emerge from the pouch after around 60 to 70 days, and leave the nest at around 111 days, often riding on the female’s back as she forages. The young become independent at 7 to 10 months, and the female sugar glider may then go on to produce a second litter (2) (3) (4) (5). Sexual maturity is reached at 8 to 15 months in females and 12 months in males (2). Although young female sugar gliders may remain with the group, young males are usually forced to disperse. Lifespan is around 4 to 6 years in the wild, or up to 14 years in captivity (2) (3) (4).
The sugar glider is a popular species in the pet trade, particularly in the United States, and breeds readily in captivity (5) (7). Although the wild population is potentially affected by land clearance for agriculture, and by bushfires, there are not thought to be any major threats to the species, and its population is believed to be stable (1) (7).
The sugar glider is not considered to be globally threatened, as it is common, widespread, and able to inhabit a wide range of habitats, including degraded habitats (1) (7). It also occurs in many protected areas throughout its range (1). However, it is a relatively understudied species, and further research may be needed into its ecology, population status and taxonomy, particularly as it is thought to potentially comprise more than one species (1).
To find out more about the sugar glider see:
Tyndale-Biscoe, H. (2005) Life of Marsupials. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria.
Lindenmayer, D. (2002) Gliders of Australia: A Natural History. UNSW Press, Sydney.
For more information on conservation of Australian wildlife see:
Australian Wildlife Conservancy:
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- Arboreal: an animal which lives or spends a large amount of time in trees.
- Gestation: the state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
- Marsupial: a diverse group of mammals characterised by their reproduction, in which gestation is very short, and the female typically has a pouch (marsupium) in which the young are raised. When born, the tiny young crawls to the mother’s teats, where it attaches and stays for a variable amount of time, whilst it continues to develop. Marsupials also differ from placental mammals in their dentition.
- Opposable: referring to a digit (thumb or toe) that can be turned so that its pad makes contact with the pad of each of the other digits on the same limb.
- Prehensile: capable of grasping.
- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
- Taxonomy: the science of classifying organisms, grouping together animals which share common features and are thought to have a common ancestor.
- Territory: an area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
- Torpor: a sleep-like state in which the body processes slow to a fraction of their normal rate.
IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
- Cronin, L. (2008) Cronin’s Key Guide Australian Mammals. Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
- Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
- Tyndale-Biscoe, H. (2005) Life of Marsupials. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria.
- Smith, M.J. (1973) Petaurus breviceps. Mammalian Species, 30: 1 - 5.
- Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Lindenmayer, D. (2002) Gliders of Australia: A Natural History. UNSW Press, Sydney.