Sugar Glider (Petaurus Breviceps)
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.
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.
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