Sugar gliders have just become 200 percent more adorable. Two new species of sugar gliders have been identified by scientists after a study revealed the beady-eyed, fiendishly cute creature is actually three genetically and physically distinct species.
Unfortunately, this new discovery means sugar gliders might be even more threatened than previously realized, especially following the bushfires that ripped through south-eastern Australia last summer.
Reported in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, researchers at Charles Darwin University (CDU) looked for key genetic and morphological differences in over 300 live and preserved glider specimens from Australian collections. Just as previous research had hinted, the sugar glider is not just one species, but at least three distinct species: the sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps), the savanna glider (Petaurus ariel), and Kreft’s glider (Petaurus notatus).
Sugar gliders are palm-sized nocturnal gliding marsupials that can be found in Australia, New Guinea, and some Indonesian islands. Their name refers to their taste for sweet nectar and their ability to glide through the air using the parachute-like membrane between their limbs, like a ninja squirrel.
The new savanna glider can be found in the woodland savannas of northern Australia and looks like a much smaller version of a squirrel glider, another type of glider with a more pointed nose. The remaining two species — the sugar glider and Krefft’s glider — look pretty similar at first glance, although have enough genetic distinct to be defined as two separate species.
While pinpointing new species sounds like good news, it could have some worrying implications for the sugar glider. Dividing them into three separate species means the distribution of the sugar glider has been widely overestimated. It also means no one is quite sure how many individuals belong to each species. This is especially bad news when you realize that much of their natural habitat was decimated by the 2019/2020 bushfire season.
“When considered as one species, sugar gliders were considered widespread and abundant, and classified as Least Concern,” Dr Teigan Cremona, study author and CDU Research Associate in ecology and conservation, explained in a statement.
“The distinction of these three species has meant a substantially diminished distribution for the sugar glider, making that species vulnerable to large scale habitat destruction.”
The researchers are particularly worried about the savanna glider of northern Australia. Dr Alyson Stobo-Wilson, CDU Research Associate, estimates this particular species has lost over a third of its natural habitat over the past 30 years.
“We need to urgently assess the conservation status of both the sugar glider and savanna glider before they are lost,” Dr Stobo-Wilson said.