a master of disguise who hides in plain sight

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Surname: savannah glider (Petaurus ariel), formerly known as the sugar glider subspecies.

Group: opossums

Size: Varies in size and fluffiness depending on where you encounter it. Length: 12-22 cm (body), plus a fluffy tail of 15-27 cm. Weight: 50-150g

Diet: Although technically an omnivore, the savannah glider feeds primarily on tree sap, nectar, and pollen, but will occasionally feed on invertebrates, grass seeds, and even geckos.

habitat: Found in the eucalyptus-dominated tropical savannas of northern Australia, from the Kimberley of Western Australia to the Gulf of Carpentaria of western Queensland.

Conservation status: least of your worries

superpower: Master of Disguise!

Savannah gliders in Nitmiluk NP (radio transmitter visible). Credit: Aline Gibson Vega

Okay, so maybe the savannah glider isn’t a complete ninja, but it managed to fool scientists about its true identity for a long time. Since its first discovery by Western scientists in 1842, the glider, found in the savannas of northern Australia, has been thought to be a subspecies of the common sugar glider. However, in 2021 it was officially recognized as a new and previously undescribed species. The savannah swift is the only gliding mammal found in WA and NT.

Gliding mammals are generally very cool animals, silently navigating through forests and woods at night by spreading their gliding membrane (think base jumper) and gliding from tree to tree (falling in style). During the day, gliders sleep in tree cavities, sometimes alone, sometimes with a mate, and sometimes with a couple of buddies.

The savannah swift is unique in that its size and ecology varies significantly across its distribution, largely due to significant changes in its external environment. The smallest savannah glider on record is from Melville Island in the Tiwis and weighs a staggering 48g compared to the largest glider on record from Judbarra National Park in the Victoria River region in NT which is three times the size (and three times the is large). the fluffiness), weighing 151 g. This size variation also corresponds to variations in savannah glider ecology, including significant variations in home range size, nocturnal travel distance, density, and the number of mates with which the glider settles. This has important implications for conservation management, as savannah gliders are found in lower numbers at the southern end of their range and require more space to obtain the necessary resources. Such marked differences in their ecology show how savannah gliders have had to adapt to survive in this unique environment.

Savanna Glider Judburran paddling
Savanna glider licks water from apple to stay hydrated before being released after a morning fishing session in Judbarra NP. Credit: Alyson Stobo-Wilson

So the savannah glider should also be considered a survivor! In fact, due to the sharp and ongoing decline in small and medium-sized mammals in northern Australia, it’s one of the few native mammals you’ll still see scurrying around the savannah at night. Many of its other arboreal friends now have very restricted ranges, found only in the mesic coastal areas of their former ranges – check out the goldback tree rat, but don’t you dare vote for it!

Unfortunately, this does not mean that everything is fine for the savannah sailor. Recent research has shown that it has probably declined from a third of its former range. To keep the savannah swift from following the sad trajectory of its neighbors, it’s important to put this wonderful mammal on the radar of all mammal lovers (and beyond). For there is nothing quite like wandering through the savannah at night and watching a savannah glider up close and personal in the honey-scented bloom of a woolly sward (Eucalyptus miniata).

Savanna glider on salmon gum in Nitmiluk np Ear tag visible Photo credit Aline Gibson.  Credit aline gibson vega
Savannah gliders on salmon rubber in Nitmiluk NP (ear tag visible). Credit: Aline Gibson Vega

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