High in the branches of Australia’s eucalyptus forests live not one but three species of glider, scientists have confirmed.
This fluffy nocturnal marsupial uses skin membranes stretching from elbow to ankle to glide up to 100m between trees in its vegetarian quest for eucalyptus leaves and buds – and, until now, it was believed there was just one species in the country.
But DNA analysis carried out on greater glider tissue samples from multiple regions has revealed the species exists in three distinct groups, largely split by their northern, central and southern ranges.
The discovery comes as glider populations have crashed by 80 per cent in just the past 20 years in Victoria’s Central Highlands.
The new study found distinct species living across gliders’ southern, central and northern ranges, with the animals decreasing in size towards the northern end of their range.
Resembling furbies with long tails, the greater gliders’ only natural territory is down Australia’s east coast. Mature female gliders raise one baby a year, with the young spending fourth months in their mothers’ pouches after they’re born.
“Australia’s biodiversity just got a lot richer. It’s not every day that new mammals are confirmed, let alone two new mammals,” one of the research authors, Professor Andrew Krockenberger, of James Cook University, told the newspaper.
Following huge wildfires in Australia in recent years, the conservation status of some animals are being reassessed, a process that has led to the discovery of the various species of glider.
“The catastrophic 2019-2020 bushfire season in Australia burnt over 97,000 sq km and directly or indirectly killed millions of native animals,” the research paper stated.
The researchers said any “lack of knowledge about the genetic structure of species across their range can result in an inability to properly manage and protect species from extinction”.
Despite recently being considered a “common and abundant species”, the glider is now listed as vulnerable under the National Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and vulnerable globally under the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species.
“Owing to the recent widespread fires and the history of unresolved population declines, the conservation status of the currently recognised single species, P. volans, is being reconsidered,” the authors said.
“The division of the greater glider into multiple species would have substantial conservation implications,” the paper said.
James Cook University PhD candidate Denise McGregor said there had been speculation for some time that there was more than one species of greater glider.
“Now we have proof from the DNA, it changes the whole way we think about them,” she said.
Little is known about the two new species, said one of the other study authors, Australian National University ecologist Kara Youngentob, and added that the concern now was to learn more about the distribution of the three species.
“It’s really exciting to find this biodiversity under our noses, and gliders are such a charismatic animal as well,” she said.
“But 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.”
The research is published in Nature Scientific Reports.