Among the most acrobatic of Australia’s small mammals are the gliders – small, possum-like marsupials that spend much of their time in tree canopies, leaping extraordinary distances with ease.
Gliders are characterised by folds of skin (or membranes) that extend between their ankles and wrists. These allow them to glide up to 140 metres through the air with their limbs outstretched, the membrane creating a parachute-like effect.
Gliders can also change direction mid-air thanks to their long tails, which they use as rudders.
Measuring between 6.5cm and 46cm in length (excluding their tails), gliders have large eyes, short faces and soft, silky fur. The largest species – the Greater Glider – can weigh up to 1.6kg, while tiny feathertail gliders weigh around 12 grams and are the size of a small mouse.
Seven species of glider are found in Australia: the Greater Glider, the Broad-toed Feather Glider and the Narrow-toed Feather Glider (known collectively as feathertail gliders), the Squirrel Glider, the Sugar Glider, the Mahogany Glider and the Yellow-tailed Glider.
Where do Australian gliders live?
Gliders can be found in all states and mainland territories. Six of the seven Australian species are found in Queensland and four of these have been observed at our Yourka Reserve.
All gliders depend on tree hollows to make their homes, but each has unique needs.
The Greater Glider requires certain altitudes where specific eucalypts can be found. It prefers old-growth forests and has never been found in rainforests. Feathertail gliders are less choosy, living in rainforests at any altitude and even in city parks and backyards where eucalypts grow.
Sugar Gliders can flourish in both wet and dry forests and woodlands and in remnant vegetation. They’ve also been successfully reintroduced in some areas. The Mahogany Glider is found in a very small area of Northern Queensland and is the most endangered of all Australian gliders. It finds its home in open forests with a diverse array of flowering plants that provide a food source.
Another two glider species (the Northern Glider and the Biak Glider) can be found in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, respectively.
Gliders are arboreal (tree-dwelling), nocturnal animals that spend their nights leaping between trees in the hunt for food. Most are omnivorous, feeding on nectar, pollen, seeds, insects and even – in the case of Sugar and Squirrel Gliders – on small birds and their eggs. The Greater Glider, however, is herbivorous and feeds mainly on eucalypt leaves.
Gliders are known for their aerodynamic leaps and fantastic climbing ability. Feathertail gliders, for example, are known to spend about 80% of their time over 15 metres above the ground and typically glide between trees three to five times an hour throughout the night. They’ve also been reported to be able to climb up vertical panes of glass!
Most gliders are social creatures, with family groups crowding together sharing the same nest hollow (such as a breeding pair plus its offspring for the Mahogany Glider or, for the Yellow-tailed Glider, in groups of up to six). The Greater Glider is the only solitary glider, coming together only in the breeding season, and using a large number of nests in its home range.
Feathertail and Sugar Gliders are both known to enter torpor, where an animal slows its breathing and dramatically reduces its physical activity for days or even up to weeks, dropping its body temperature and oxygen consumption and wrapping its body into a ball. This enables them to reduce energy needs and survive periods of food shortage.
Breeding habits vary across glider species. Feathertail gliders, being small and susceptible to heat loss in cold weather, are known to nest in artificial sites such as telephone boxes and meter boxes. Nest hollows are often lined with dry leaves, whereas the Greater Glider, is not known to build a nest. And while the Yellow-bellied Glider is monogamous, male Squirrel Gliders and female feathertail gliders are promiscuous. Greater Gliders give birth to only one young and feathertail gliders can give birth to up to four. The other species usually have one or two young. Being marsupials, they carry their young in a pouch.
Threats to gliders
Like many Australian species, gliders are in decline. They require mature trees with well-developed hollows. Habitat destruction and fragmentation are of particular concern, reducing the number of available hollows. However, other threats include fire and feral predators, as well as the use of barbed-wire fences that can trap the animal’s gliding membrane causing a slow and painful death.
Natural predators include owls, goannas, pythons, kookaburras and quolls.
What’s Bush Heritage doing?
We preserve remnants of old-growth forest where tree hollows are present and habitat for gliders is good. We also manage fire, weeds and ferals in these areas to maintain and enhance the quality of the habitat for gliders and other species. In some places nest boxes are used to provide additional nesting habitat for gliders (for example, at Yourka to encourage feathertail gliders).
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Where they're found
Feathertail Gliders: Yourka
Greater Gliders: Tarcutta Hills (NSW), Burrin Burrin (NSW), Reedy Creek, Yourka & Carnarvon (Qld)
Sugar Gliders: Brogo & Scottsdale reserves (NSW), Goonderoo, Reedy Creek, Carnarvon & Yourka Reserves (Qld). Nardoo Hills (Vic), Wunambal Gaambera country (WA), Olkola Country (Qld), Warddeken IPA and Arafura Swamp (NT)
Yellow bellied Gliders: Carnarvon
Squirrel Gliders: Reedy Creek, Yourka & Carnarvon reserves & on Olkola Country (Cape York) in Queensland.