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Sugar Glider (Honey Glider, Short-headed Possum)

Can glide distances of 200 ft


Order: Diprotodontia (prev. Marsupialia)

Family: Petauridae (prev. Phalangeridae)

Genus & Species: Petaurus breviceps

APPEARANCE

The sugar glider is perhaps the most striking in appearance of all the marsupials. Due to their beautiful coat and small size, they are often kept as pets in North America.

Sugar gliders are diminutive in size. They are generally 11-16 in (27.5 - 40 cm) in length, with 6-8 in (15-20 cm) of that belonging to the bushy, non-prehensile tail. Sexual dimorphism is present in this species, with the males being larger than the females. The males weigh approximately 115-160 g, while the females weigh 100-135 g.

Sugar gliders have a squirrel-like body ending in a long tail. The heady is rather short and narrow. The legs are small and end in five-digit feet. All of the toes are clawed, with the exception of the opposable toe on each hind foot. The hind feet are syndactylus, with two of the toes being partially fused together. The sugar glider uses these fused toes for grooming.

Sugar gliders are covered with thick, soft fur. The coat is usually blue-grey in colour, but some specimens have been known to be yellow or tan, and even albinos are known to exist. A black stripe extends from the nose over the head and ends midway across the back. A black ring encircles either eye and extends back to the large, hairless ears. The last few inches of the tail are also black. The underbelly, chest, and throat are a light cream to white in colour. The top of the patagium is blue-grey, the underside is generally white interspersed with dark hairs, and the edge is a bright white.

The patagium is perhaps the most striking feature of the sugar glider. It is a thin layer of furred skin that stretches from the wrist to the ankle of the hind limb on either side of the body. When the legs are extended this skin is spread taught, much like in a North American flying squirrel, and the sugar glider is enabled to glide great distances.

Sugar gliders are marsupials, and so the females do have a marsupium (pouch). The marsupium is roughly in (12.5 mm) in length, and is located in the middle of her abdomen. Sugar glider males also have a feature unique to many other marsupials they have a bifurcated penis. In other words, their penis has two shafts, and acts like two separate penises.

Sugar gliders are highly vocal, often making what is known as a "crabbing" noise, somewhat reminiscent of an electric blender. They also bark, chirp, and chatter amongst themselves.

Sugar gliders have many scent glands used for marking territory. The males have three primary scent glands: one located on the forehead, one on the chest, and one alongside the cloaca (an opening for the urinary, gastrointestinal, and reproductive tracts). The best way to tell a male sugar glider apart from a female is to look at the forehead, as in males the scent gland up there is visible as a bald spot.

Sugar gliders have an acute sense of smell and hearing. They are nocturnal, and so also have acute night vision.

Sugar gliders have a life span of 9 years in the wild, 12 in captivity.

HABITAT

Sugar gliders are found throughout eastern and northern Australia (some have even been found in southern Australia), as well as its nearby islands, including Tasmania and Papua New Guinea. They can be found in all types of forests, but prefer the open forests where there is room to glide. Sugar gliders are social animals, nesting in family groups of up to twelve individuals. These groups are headed by a dominant male who will do most of the territorial marking. This territory, though small, consists of several eucalyptus trees and is readily defended by the entire group.

Sugar gliders are nocturnal, spending their days sleeping in a nest in a hollow portion of a tree. At night they are highly energetic, performing amazing acts of aerial acrobatics and gliding distances of 200 ft (66 m).

If food becomes scarce in the winter months, sugar gliders have been known to hibernate.

FOOD

Sugar gliders are omnivorous in nature, often preying upon insects and insect larvae, as well as birds, bird eggs, small lizards, and arachnids in the summer months, and turning to plant products in the winter months: nectar, fruits, leaves, sap, and pollen.

Sugar gliders are so named for a reason they have a sweet tooth. Their main source of sugar comes from the eucalyptus tree; by tearing into its bark they can get at the sweet honey-like sap.

ENEMIES

Sugar gliders are extremely common throughout their entire range, and are considered one of the most abundant of the Australian mammals. They have many natural introduced predators, including kookaburras, lace monitors, owls, foxes, cats, and dogs.

Humans are also somewhat of a threat to sugar gliders, due to the destruction of their forest habitat. The natives of New Guinea often capture sugar gliders and keep them as pets, or ship them to North America to be sold as pets there. Unfortunately, many of these foreign pets die due to neglect or ignorance, and it is for this reason that they are illegal to own in many states.

BREEDING

Sugar gliders reach sexual maturity at 7-10 months. The mating season usually occurs in August, but can extend from June to November. The dominant male is often the only male in the social group to mate, but it is the females who decide who he mates with. The male first approaches the female he is hoping to mate with and rubs his forehead's scent gland on her belly. If she accepts him, she then rubs her forehead on his belly, and they mate. The gestation period is short, only 15-17 days. The female births 1-3 underdeveloped young which are hairless, less than 0.5 g in weight, and only 5 mm in length. The young make their way into their mother's marsupium where they grasp onto one of four teats. There they remain for 60-70 days. Ten days after they emerge, their eyes open, and after a month they are ready to eat solid food. Although they quickly become independent, they may remain with their mother for several years.

RELATIVES

There are thought to be seven subspecies of the sugar glider based on appearance and geographic location: P. b. longicaudatus (Queensland); P. b. ariel (Northern Territory); P. b. flavidus (southern New Guinea); P. b. tafa (Owen Stanley Range); P. b. papuanus (northern New Guinea); P. b. biacensis (Biak Island); and P. b. breviceps (from Tasmania to Tropic of Capricorn). There are several other species in this genus, including the squirrel glider.

RESOURCES CITED

1. www.ozemail.com.au/~wprimary/sugar.htm
2. animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/petaurus/p._breviceps$narrative.html
3. www.glider.buffnet.net/jane/glider/warning.html
4. www.zoo.utas.edu.au/sugarglider.html
5. www.skinhorse.net/gliders
6. www.hilltopanimalhospital.com/sugarglider.htm
7. "Sugar Glider" Animal Card, Geneva 1979
8. "Sugar Glider" Wildlife Fact File, USA, IM Pub Inc.

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