Photo by Steve Johnson
It is likely that the sugar glider was introduced to Tasmania, possibly in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The lack of skeletal remains in subfossil bone deposits and the lack of an Aboriginal name for the animal supports the view that it was introduced. The animal's scientific name translates: 'short-headed rope-dancer' - a reference to its adept movements high in the canopy.
A gliding possum
The sugar glider is one of a number of volplaning (gliding) possums in Australia. This remarkable ability to glide is achieved through a flap of loose skin which extends between the fifth finger of the hand to the first toe of the foot. The animal launches itself from a tree, spreads its limbs to expose the gliding membrane and directs its glide through subtle changes in the curvature of the membrane. The possum can glide for up to 100 metres.
The species rarely descends to the ground. Presumably gliding serves as both an efficient means of locomotion and an effective way of reducing the risk of predation.
The species occurs widely throughout eastern and northern Australia, and is widespread throughout a range of habitats in Tasmania. Old growth trees with hollows are important in providing nesting sites for the species.
Sugar gliders have a sweet tooth - their diet consists of flower nectar, acacia gum, eucalypt sap and insects. One study of a Victorian population showed that individuals spent about 43% of their foraging time feeding on gum, 12% on eucalypt sap and 28% on searching for invertebrates.
Breeding occurs during the winter and spring months, with two young being the normal litter size. Young spend about 70 days in the pouch before being left in the nest. Longevity in the wild is up to 9 years in the wild. Like many species, longevity can be longer (up to 12 years) in captivity.
Sugar gliders are highly social -- at least as far as marsupials go -- with nests often comprising up to seven adults and their young. Huddling together serves the nest occupants well during spells of cold weather, although the species is also capable of becoming torpid during cold weather, that is, its body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure drop for a few days at a time while the animal is in a state similar to hibernation.
The sugar glider is well-endowed with scent glands which presumably allow territorial marking and individual recognition of family members.
They are also are highly vocal animals and have a range of vocalisations for different occasions. If the nest is disturbed, the occupants emit a rather intimidating chattering sound.