As It Happens

Australia's 'intensely cute' greater gliders are actually 3 different species

Greater gliders, nocturnal marsupials that leap and glide between trees, come in a variety of colours and sizes, and live across a diverse range of climates in Australia. It turns out that's because they're actually three separate species. 

Discovery amplifies the need for conservation for creatures beset by bushfires, says biologist

This greater glider is a light colour morph of the southern species P. volans. (Steven Kuiter )

Transcript

Australian scientists have discovered there's more than meets the eye to the country's favourite fuzzy flyers. 

Greater gliders, nocturnal marsupials that leap and glide between trees, come in a variety of colours and sizes, and live across a diverse range of climates in Australia. It turns out that's because they're actually three separate species. 

"We actually knew that they were greater gliders there the whole time. We just didn't know that they were different species," Kara Youngentob, a biologist from Australian National University (ANU), told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

The research — a joint effort by ANU, James Cook University, the University of Canberra and Australia's national science agency — was published this week in Scientific Reports.

An accidental discovery 

Youngentob says scientists never would have made the discovery were it not for a PhD student.

Denise McGregor wanted to test the relationships between body size and climate. Her PhD supervisors, Youngentob and James Cook University's Andrew Krockenberger, suggested she start with the greater glider.

"We thought the greater glider would be a great species to work on this question, because we thought it was all one species and it had a huge distribution and very big differences in body size, which in hindsight probably should have indicated more than we thought it did," Youngentob said.

Three species of greater gliders are pictured here — P. minor, top left, P. armillatus, bottom left, and P volans again, right. (Denise McGregor, Jasmine Vink)

While McGregor was trapping the animals to take tissue samples — without harming them, Yongentob assured — she made note of the stark differences between them.

"She could see that they looked very different and she sent the tissue samples away. And sure enough, they were profoundly different," Youngentob said.

"And so she came to us with this information and we were just like, OK, we need to rethink this."

Denise McGregor measures a great glider. (Submitted by Kara Youngentob)

The team identified two species at first — lush, fluffy gliders live in the south and come in black and white, and southern gliders with denser, usually brownish fur.

At the same time, she said, the folks compiling the latest edition of the Gliding Mammals book series had proposed that there were, in fact, three species of gliders.

"They gave a location where they thought the third species might be. And our student saw this and said, 'Can I go there to see what's there?'" Youngentob said. "We were like, 'Absolutely, go there.'"

The third species, which lives in central Australia, are the least studied of the three. 

"We still know almost nothing about that central species," Youngentob said.

They need protection, urge scientist 

The discovery adds to Australia's already rich biodiversity, but also further highlights the threat to it, Youngentob said.

Greater glider populations were already declining rapidly due to habitat loss, a fact only exacerbated by last year's devastating wildfires.

Kara Youngentob, a biologist at the Australian National University, with a koala she rescued during last year's bushfires. (Submitted by Kara Youngentob)

"When you think that it has a distribution that goes all the way up north to the tropics, essentially, you're thinking, well, at least there's some of that animal's habitat that wasn't impacted by fire," Youngentob said.

"But when we found out that that was, indeed, a separate species, all of a sudden the conservation concern is amplified because we know that it doesn't have that large distribution that we thought it had."

She's also hoping the news will generate public support for protecting the eucalyptus-munching critters, which she describes as "intensely cute" and "super chill."

"They look like something that Jim Henson, the late puppeteer, would have created. They're like little Muppet Furbies," she said.

"When the two gliders get together to make a baby glider, you often see them in the top of the tree canopy, sitting next to each other with their long tails intertwined, which is just, you know, the sweetest, kind of most romantic thing with the gliders silhouetted against the night sky. 

"So they're just a delight to work with and to see. And not enough people knew that they were even out there."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Lisa Bryn Rundle. 

 

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