Monday, 22 November 2010
Miscellaneous mammals 2: The Sugar Glider
A diet of gum requires a specialised intestinal tract – gums usually contain complex carbohydrates which require a specialised gut flora to adequately digest. In fact, their diet closely resembles the marmosets and tamarins of South America, although the latter are diurnal. Like the marmosets though, they like to sleep in holes in trees, and I suspect the distribution of suitable nest holes is probably a major limiting factor in the population.
P.breviceps ranges from the Moluccan islands in the west, through Papua New Guinea, and down the coastal forests of eastern Australia to as far south as Tasmania. With such a vast range, there must be a strong suspicion that the taxonomy actually comprises a species complex, possibly with varied ecology, diet, and behaviour, especially in the colder parts of its range. This is a very common situation with nocturnal animals – they tend to differ in calls (all known Petaurus species are highly vocal), habitat choice, or even scent, which means that without intensive DNA investigation the true extent of their diversity remains unknown.
P.breviceps is currently listed as of Least Concern on the IUCN Red data list, but with the current state of taxonomy this may conceal several island endemic forms which are in a more serious case. The origin of the form being bred for the pet trade is unknown, but probably includes one or more islands in Indonesia or Papua New Guinea. There is thus a strong possibility that the domestic form is actually a hybrid of several subspecies or species.
Although undeniably attractive, sugar gliders do not make good pets, especially for people who do not understand their requirements. As a marsupial with a specialised diet their care and hygiene is not at all like the small rodents they superficially resemble, and as a highly active, social, arboreal animal they need large (aviary-sized) quarters, a cohesive social group, and appropriate heating. Our sugar gliders live in an enclosure of about 2.5m x 2.5mx 4m, and could easily make use of a much larger space. Incidentally, they share it with our pair of Long-nosed Potoroos, of which more next week.
(images from australianfauna.com)