The Three Great Gliders

Meet the greater glider!

Genetic evidence supports that there are infact three species of greater glider, Petauroides volans, P. minor, and P. armillatus. Photo by Josh Bowell

The ecocidal 2019–2020 bushfire season in Australia burnt over 97,000 km2 and killed millions of native animals2. The impacts of fire on genetic diversity are nontrivial3, and the extent of the recent fires means that substantial portions of many species’ ranges were impacted2. As a result, the conservation status of a number of species are being revisited and the importance of protecting genetic diversity within species is becoming more widely recognised for its central role in conserving species’ resilience to anthropogenic climate change4,5,6.

In what’s possibly the greatest news we’ve read all year, Australian researchers have discovered two new species of greater glider.

Published in the Nature’s Scientific Reports journal, new genetic research has identified that there are not one, as previously thought, but three seperate species of greater glider.

”The identification and classification of species are essential for effective conservation management. This year, Australia experienced a bushfire season of unprecedented severity, resulting in widespread habitat loss and mortality. As a result, there has been an increased focus on understanding genetic diversity and structure across the range of individual species to protect resilience in the face of climate change. The greater glider (Petauroides volans) is a large, gliding eucalypt folivore. This nocturnal arboreal marsupial has a wide distribution across eastern Australia and is considered the sole extant member of the genus Petauroides. Differences in morphology have led to suggestions that the one accepted species is actually three. This would have substantial impacts on conservation management, particularly given a recent history of declining populations, coupled with extensive wildfires. ”Nature Journal

“Australia’s biodiversity just got a lot richer. It’s not every day that new mammals are confirmed, let alone two new mammals,” -James Cook University Professor Andrew Krockenberger, one of the researchers behind the study, said.

Greater gliders from the northern (top left), central (bottom left) and southern (right) groups identified through DArTseq showing morphological differences that are typical of our dataset. Greater gliders of the type shown on the right have several pelage colour morphs including white and light grey. Screen capture. Original photos by Denise McGregor (top left) and Jasmine Vink (bottom left and right).

The extremely adorable marsupials are one of the world’s biggest gliding mammals (the largest can grow to the size of a cat), and can glide up to 100 metres through the air. Greater gliders are nocturnal, feed on eucalyptus leaves and spend their days nestled in the nooks of their favourite trees.

The research explains size differences between glider populations around Australia. Scientists now know that southern gliders, found in NSW and Victoria, are the largest glider species; northern gliders, living in eucalyptus forests between Mackay and Cairns, are around the same size as a ringtail possum; and central gliders, found in southern Queensland, are in-between the two.

This once common animal is now facing extinction. The greater glider is listed on the Australian threatened species list and lost one third of its habitat as a result of last year’s bushfires. Southern glider populations have also decreased by 80 per cent in the last 20 years.

“The division of the greater glider into multiple species reduces the previous widespread distribution of the original species, further increasing conservation concern for that animal and highlighting the lack of information about the other greater glider species,” Australian National University ecologist Kara Youngentob, one of the study’s authors, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“For the southern species, anything over 20 degrees Celsius at night means it has to use its energy to actively cool itself and high temperatures also put them off their food and stop them eating.”

The research acts as a reminder of the importance of conserving Australia’s biodiversity and protecting this vulnerable species against the threats of climate change and land clearing.

Head here to read the research report in full.

 LUCY JONES  Planet Ark

 

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