P.b. ariel, Gould 1842
|Sugar glider natural range
P. (Belideus) breviceps, Waterhouse 1839
The sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps) is a small, omnivorous, arboreal, and nocturnal gliding possum belonging to the marsupial infraclass. The common name refers to its preference for sugary nectarous foods and ability to glide through the air, much like a flying squirrel. Due to convergent evolution, they have very similar appearance and habits to the flying squirrel, but are not closely related. The scientific name, Petaurus breviceps, translates from Latin as "short-headed rope-dancer", a reference to their canopy acrobatics.
Sugar gliders are characterised by their gliding membrane, known as the patagium, which extends from their forelegs to hindlegs. Gliding serves as an efficient means of both locating food and evading predators. They are covered in soft, pale grey to brown fur, which is lighter in colour on their underside. The sugar glider is endemic to mainland Australia and New Guinea and its surrounding islands; and was introduced to Tasmania in 1835.
The Petaurus genus likely originated during the early-mid Miocene period (18-24 million years ago); and likely dispersed from New Guinea to Australia leading to the evolution of Australian Petaurus species. The earliest Petaurus species occurred in Australia 4.46 million years ago; and the sugar glider is the only species endemic to both Australia and New Guinea. The sugar glider is divided into seven sub species; three of which are found in Australia, and four in New Guinea; although there is debate surrounding the current species delineation. These seven subspecies are currently designated by small morphological differences such as colour and body size. However, genetic analysis using mitochondrial DNA indicates that the morphological sub species may not represent genetically unique populations. Contrary to the current geographic distribution of sugar gliders, there are thought to be two genetically distinct populations in Australia that likely arose due to long term geographical isolation following drying of the Australian continent after the Pliocene, and the uplift of the Great Dividing Range. One population is found in coastal NSW and southern Queensland; and the other is found in northern Queensland, inland and southern NSW, Victoria and South Australia. However, further evidence is required to clarify if changes to the current taxonomic divisions are warranted.
Distribution and habitat
Sugar gliders are found throughout the northern and eastern parts of mainland Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea and several associated isles, the Bismarck Archipelago, Louisiade Archipelago, and certain isles of Indonesia, Halmahera Islands of the North Moluccas. The earliest Australian sugar glider fossils were found in a cave in Victoria and are dated to 15 000 years ago, at the time of the Pleistocene epoch. The facilitated introduction of the sugar glider to Tasmania in 1835 is supported by the absence of skeletal remains in subfossil bone deposits and the lack of an Aboriginal Tasmanian name for the animal. In Australia, sugar glider distribution corresponds with forests along the southern, eastern and northern coastlines, and extends to altitudes of 2000 m in the eastern ranges. Sugar gliders occur in sympatry with the squirrel glider, mahogany glider, and yellow-bellied glider; and their coexistence is permitted through niche partitioning where each species has different patterns of resource use.
They have a broad habitat niche, inhabiting rainforests and coconut plantations in New Guinea; and rainforests, wet or dry sclerophyll forest and acacia scrub in Australia; preferring habitats with Eucalpyt and Acacia species. The main structural habitat requirements are a large number of stems within the canopy, and dense mid and upper canopy cover, likely to enable efficient movement through the canopy. Like all arboreal, nocturnal marsupials, sugar gliders are active at night, and shelter in tree hollows lined with leafy twigs during the day. The average home range of sugar gliders is 0.5 hectares, and is largely related to the abundance of food sources; density ranges from 2-6 individuals per hectare.
Native owls (Ninox sp.) are their primary predators; others in their range include kookaburras, goannas, snakes, and quolls. Feral cats (Felis catus) also represent a significant threat.
Appearance and anatomy
The sugar glider has a squirrel-like body with a long, partially (weakly) prehensile tail. The length from the nose to the tip of the tail is about 24 to 30 cm (12–13 inches), and males and females weigh 140 grams and 115 grams respectively. Heart rate range is 200-300 beats per minutes, and respiration rate is 16-40 breaths per minute. The sugar glider is a sexually dimorphic species, with males typically larger than females. Sexual dimorphism has likely evolved due to increased mate competition arising through social group structure; and is more pronounced in regions of higher latitude, where mate competition is greater due to increased food availability.
The sugar glider has a thick, soft fur coat that is usually blue-grey; although some have been known to be yellow, tan or (rarely) albino[a] A black stripe is seen from its nose to midway on its back. Its belly, throat, and chest are cream in colour. Males have four scent glands, located on the forehead, chest, and two paracloacal (associated with, but not part of the cloaca which is the common opening for the intestinal, urinal and genital tracts) that are used for marking of group members and territory. Scent glands on the head and chest of males appear as bald spots. Females also have a paracloacal scent gland, as well as a scent gland in the pouch, but do not have scent glands on the chest or forehead. Being nocturnal, its large eyes help it to see at night, and its ears swivel to help locate prey in the dark. The eyes of the sugar glider are set far apart, allowing them to triangulate the distance between launch and landing location during gliding. The sugar glider has five digits on each foot, with an opposable toe on each hind foot. These opposable toes are clawless, and bend in a way that they can touch all the other digits, like a human thumb, allowing the sugar glider to firmly grasp branches. The second and third digits of the hind foot are partially syndactylous (fused together), forming a grooming comb. The fourth digit of the fore foot is sharp and elongated, aiding in extraction of insects under the bark of trees. The gliding membrane extends from the outside of the fifth digit of each forefoot to the first digit of each hindfoot. When the legs are stretched out, this membrane allows the sugar glider to glide a considerable distance. The membrane is supported by well developed tibiocarpalis, humerodorsalis and tibioabdominalis muscles, and its movement is controlled by these supporting muscles in conjunction with trunk, limb and tail movement.
Biology and behaviour
The sugar glider is one of a number of volplane (gliding) possums in Australia. Gliders glide with the fore- and hind-limbs extended at right angles to their body, with their feet flexed upwards. The animal launches itself from a tree, spreading its limbs to expose the gliding membranes. This creates an aerofoil enabling them to glide 50 metres or more. For every 1.82 m travelled horizontally when gliding, sugar gliders fall 1m. Sugar gliders can steer by moving their limbs and adjusting the tension of their gliding membrane; for example, to turn left, a sugar glider will lower its left forearm below its right.
This form of arboreal locomotion is typically used to travel from tree to tree; the species rarely descends to the ground. Gliding provides three dimensional avoidance of arboreal predators, and minimal contact with ground dwelling predators; as well as possible benefits in decreasing time spent foraging for nutrient poor foods that are irregularly distributed. Using gliding as a mode of locomotion may also allow sugar gliders to decrease their energy consumption when searching for food. Young carried in the pouch of females are protected from landing forces by the septum that separates them within the pouch.
Sugar gliders can tolerate ambient air temperatures of up to 40 °C through behavioural strategies such as licking their coat and exposing the wet area, as well as drinking small quantities of water. In cold weather, sugar gliders will huddle together to avoid heat loss, and will enter torpor to conserve energy. Huddling as an energy conserving mechanism is not as efficient as torpor. Before entering torpor, a sugar glider will reduce activity and body temperature normally in order to lower energy expenditure and avoid torpor. With energetic constraints, the sugar glider will enter into daily torpor for 2–23 hours while in rest phase. Torpor differs from hibernation in that torpor is usually a short-term daily cycle, which saves energy for the animal by allowing its body temperature to fall to a minimum of 10.4 °C (50.7 °F) to 19.6 °C (67.3 °F). When food is scarce, as in winter, heat production is lowered in order to reduce energy expenditure. With low energy and heat production, it is important for the sugar glider to peak its body mass by fat content in the autumn (May/June) in order to survive the following cold season. In the wild, sugar gliders enter into daily torpor more often than sugar gliders in captivity. The use of torpor is most frequent during winter, likely in response to low ambient temperature, rainfall, and seasonal fluctuation in food sources.
Diet and nutrition
Sugar gliders are seasonally adapted omnivores with a wide variety of foods in their diet, and mainly forage in the lower layers of the forest canopy. Sugar gliders may obtain up to half their daily water intake through drinking rainwater, with the remainder obtained through water held in its food. In summer they are primarily insectivorous, and in the winter when insects (and other arthropods) are scarce, they are mostly exudativorous (feeding on acacia gum, eucalyptus sap, manna,[b] honeydew or lerp). To obtain sap and nectar from plants, sugar gliders will strip the bark off trees or open bore holes with their teeth to access stored liquid gum. Little time is spent foraging for insects, as it is an energetically expensive process, and sugar gliders will wait until insects fly into their habitat, or stop to feed on flowers. Gliders consume approximately 11 g of dry food matter per day. This equates to roughly 8% and 9.5% of body weight for males and females, respectively. They are opportunistic feeders and can be carnivorous (preying mostly on lizards and small birds), and eat many other foods when available, such as nectar, acacia seeds, bird eggs, pollen, fungi and native fruits. Pollen can make up a large portion of their diet, and for this reason sugar gliders are likely to be important pollinators of Banksia species. Sugar gliders have an enlarged caecum to assist in digestion of complex carbohydrates obtained from gum and sap. Carnivorous behaviour in the form of preying on the nestlings of the Swift parrot is a serious threat to the parrot's survival (see "Conservation" below).
Like most marsupials, female sugar gliders have two ovaries and two uteri; and are polyestrous, meaning they can go into heat several times a year. The female has a marsupium (pouch) in the middle of her abdomen to carry offspring. The pouch opens anteriorly, and two lateral pockets extend posteriorly when young are present. Four nipples are usually present in the pouch, although reports of individuals with two nipples have been recorded. Male sugar gliders have a bifurcated penis to correspond with the two uteri of females. The age of sexual maturity in sugar gliders varies slightly between the males and females. Males reach maturity at 4 to 12 months of age, while females require from 8 to 12 months. In the wild, sugar gliders breed once or twice a year depending on the climate and habitat conditions, while they can breed multiple times a year in captivity as a result of consistent living conditions and proper diet.
A sugar glider female gives birth to one (19%) or two (81%) babies (joeys) per litter. The gestation period is 15 to 17 days, after which the tiny joey (0.2 g) will crawl into a mother's pouch for further development. They are born largely undeveloped and furless, with only the olfactory organs and a continuous arc of cartilage in their shoulder developed girdle to provide support for climbing into the pouch Young are completely contained in the pouch for 60 days after birth, eyes first open around 80 days after birth, and young will leave the nest around 110 days after birth. By the time young are weaned, the thermoregulatroy system is developed, and in conjunction with a large body size and thicker fur, they are able to regulate their own body temperature. Breeding is seasonal in south east Australia, with young only born from June–November. Further north in Arnhem Land, breeding is not seasonally restricted and young may be born throughout the year. Unlike animals that move along the ground, the sugar glider, and other gliding species, produce fewer, but heavier, offspring per litter; allowing female sugar gliders to retain the ability to glide when pregnant.
Sugar gliders are highly social animals. They live in family groups or colonies consisting of up to seven adults, plus the current season's young. Up to four age classes may exist within each group, although some sugar gliders are solitary, not belonging to a group. They engage in social grooming, which in addition to improving hygiene and health, helps bond the colony and establish group identity. Within social communities, there are two co-dominant males who suppress subordinate males, but show no aggression towards each other. These co-dominant pairs are more related to each other than to subordinates within the group; and share food, nests, mates, and responsibility for scent marking of community members and territories. Territory and members of the group are marked with saliva and a scent produced by separate glands on the forehead and chest. Intruders who lack the appropriate scent marking are expelled violently. Rank is established through scent marking; and fighting does not occur within groups, but does occur when communities come into contact with each other. Within the colony, no fighting typically takes place beyond threatening behaviour. Each colony defends a territory of about 2.5 acres where eucalyptus trees provide a staple food source.
Male sugar gliders are one of the very few species of mammals or marsupials that exhibit male parental care. The oldest codominant male in a social community shows a high level of parental care, as he is the most likely father of any offspring due to his social status. Male parental care likely evolved in sugar gliders as young are more likely to survive when both parents provided care. In the sugar glider, biparental care allows one adult to huddle with the young and prevent hypothermia while the other parent is out foraging, as young sugar gliders aren’t able to thermoregulate until they are 100 days old (3.5 months).
Communication in sugar gliders is achieved through vocalisations, visual signals and complex chemical odours. Chemical odours account for a large part of communication in sugar gliders, similar to many other nocturnal animals. Odours may be used to mark territory, convey health status of an individual, and mark rank of community members. Gliders produce a number of vocalisations including barking and hissing.
The sugar glider is not considered endangered, and its conservation rank is "Least Concern (LC)" on the IUCN Red List. Despite the loss of natural habitat in Australia over the last 200 years, it is adaptable and capable of living in small patches of remnant bush, particularly if it does not have to cross large expanses of cleared land to reach them. However, several close relatives are endangered, particularly Leadbeater's possum and the mahogany glider. Sugar gliders may persist in areas that have undergone mild-moderate selective logging, as long as three to five hollow bearing trees are retained per hectare. Although not currently threatened by habitat loss, the ability of sugar gliders to forage and avoid predators successfully may be decreased in areas of high light pollution.
Conservation in Australia is enacted at the federal, state and local levels, where sugar gliders are protected as a native species. The central conservation law in Australia is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 is an example of conservation law in the state of South Australia, where it is legal to keep (only) one sugar glider without a permit, provided it was acquired legally from a source with a permit. A permit is required to obtain or possess more than one glider, or if one wants to sell or give away any glider in their possession. It is illegal to capture or sell wild sugar gliders without a permit.
Although not itself endangered, the species has been identified as a severe threat to the survival of the Swift parrot. Reduction in mature forest cover has left Swift parrot nests highly vulnerable to predation by sugar gliders, and it is estimated that the parrot could be extinct within 16 years.
In captivity, they can suffer from calcium deficiencies if not fed an adequate diet. A lack of calcium in the diet causes the body to leach calcium from the bones, with the hind legs first to show noticeable dysfunction. Calcium to phosphorus ratios should be 2:1 to prevent hypocalcemia, sometimes known as hind leg paralysis (HLP). Their diet should be 50% insects (gut-loaded) or other sources of protein, 25% fruit and 25% vegetables. Some of the more recognised diets are Bourbon's Modified Leadbeaters (BML), High Protein Wombaroo (HPW) and various calcium rich diets with Leadbeaters Mixture (LBM).
As a pet
Around the world, the sugar glider is popular as an exotic pet. It is also one of the most commonly traded wild animals in the illegal pet trade, where animals are taken directly from their natural habitats.
In Australia, sugar gliders can be kept in Victoria, South Australia, and the Northern Territory. However, they are not allowed to be kept as pets in Western Australia, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Queensland or Tasmania.
Sugar gliders are popular as pets in the United States, where they are bred in large numbers. Most states and cities allow sugar gliders as pets, with some exceptions including California, Hawaii, and Alaska. In 2014, Massachusetts changed its law, allowing sugar gliders to be kept as pets. Some other states require permits or licensing. Many states also require permits and/or licensing for breeding large numbers of sugar gliders. Due to the Animal Welfare Act, the USDA and APHIS regulate the licensing of breeders.
- Tate & Archbold, 1935; subspecies P. b. tafa considered a synonym of species P. breviceps
- P. b. flavidus (Tate and Archbold, 1935) considered a synonym of P. b. papuanus (Thomas 1888)
- Subspecies (former) P. b. biacensis provisionally considered species: P. biacensis (Biak glider). "Helgen (2007) states that Petaurus biacensis is likely to be conspecific with P. breviceps. P. biacensis appears to differ from the latter mainly by having a higher incidence of melanism (Helgen 2007). We provisionally retain P. biacensis as a separate species pending further taxonomic work, thus following what has become standard treatment (e.g., Flannery 1994, 1995; Groves 2005)."
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- Sugar glider — Atlas of Living Australia
- Sugar glider — Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland
- Gliders in the Spotlight — Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland
- Basic Sugar Glider information — Australian Fauna
- ITIS report: Petaurus breviceps — Taxon classification verified by ITIS
- Petaurus breviceps — Animal Diversity Web
- VIDEOS: sugar gliders in the wild on ARKive.org — BBC Natural History Unit
- Enlargement of Petaurus breviceps skull — Museum Victoria, Bioinformatics (photo showing sugar gliders' unusual dentition)