Capable of flying up to 200 feet (61 meters) in a single leap, Sugar Glider Possums are stealing hearts and flying off of store shelves to quickly become Britain’s hottest household pet, with people willing to pay as much as $270 US (£150) to own one because they’re so rare and unusual.
These curiously cute marsupials are typically 6 inches (15 centimeters) long in the body with bushy tails of equal length. A flabby membrane of skin forms a square when their legs and arms are outstretched, which enables them to glide through the air.
They can fly up to 200 feet in mere seconds in the wild but domesticated Sugar Gliders will frequently run up curtain poles and glide across rooms for exercise.
“They run up anything that gives them height like curtains and leap off.” said Sian Bailey, a breeder and trainee veterinary nurse in Southampton.
“People are travelling all over the country to get them.”
“They do require a lot of care and attention — far more than a cat or dog.” Sian warns. “Sugar Gliders needed to be kept in a large cage similar to an aviary filled with tubes and places to hide as they enjoy running around.”
“They are nocturnal creatures so I let mine out every night for a few hours so they can glide and stretch their legs.”
The squirrel-like animals are a small possum native to eastern and northern mainland Australia, New Guinea, and the Bismarck Archipelago, but a number of breeders have set up in business in Britain.
They were first bred in captivity in the US 10 years ago, and are said to make good pets due to their lively and inquisitive nature, and ability to bond well with people if given plenty of attention — some owners keep them in a pouch around their necks to help with the bonding process. The RSPCA however doesn’t recommend them as pets considering that they need a lot of space.
Sugar Gliders are not difficult to breed in captivity under the right conditions, and small numbers have been legally and illegally exported to America where breeding populations have been developed for sale as pets.
The Sugar Glider is protected by law in Australia, where it’s illegal to keep them without a permit, or to capture or sell them without a license — usually only issued for research.
Bred and kept in captivity, these creatures behave differently from those in the wild, and can live 10 years in captivity.
They have a special diet of fruit, vegetables and leadbeaters – a mix of warm water, honey, boiled eggs, baby cereal and vitamin supplements.
About Sugar Glider Possums
Sugar Gliders are typically 6 to 7.5 inches (15 to 21 centimeters) in length, have tails nearly as long as their bodies and as thick as a human thumb, and weigh from 3 to 5.3 ounces (90 to 150 grams). They’re generally gray in color with black and cream patches on the underbelly and black or grey ears, but variations include brown, leucistic — lacking pigment, but not all pigment — and albino recessive traits. They have short rounded muzzles, and tails that taper slightly with the last quarter colored dark or black.
Two baby sugar gliders were rescued from their dead mother. One survived named Possy. During the day he lives in the humidcrib at the koala hospital, tended to by Cheyne, who takes him home at night. Photo Koalawrangler February 27 2008
Their most distinctive feature are membranes that enable them to glide — 2 skin membranes called patagia that extend from the 5th finger of the forelimb back to the first toe of the hind foot, which are rather inconspicuous when they’re at rest, but immediately obvious when they take flight. When fully extended they form an aerodynamic surface the size of a large handkerchief. The membrane is usually pink in color with a thin sheet of fur surrounding it. Not only do the membranes help them to ‘fly,’ but they’re also used to gather food while hunting.
To glide, these animals use their hind legs to thrust powerfully away from a tree, and when about 10 feet (3 meters) from the destination tree trunk, they bring the hind legs up close to the body and swoop upwards to make contact with all 4 limbs at once. Their tails are also used for stability and steering.
Sugar Gliders are named for their preference for sweet foods and ability to glide through the air like a flying squirrel.
They are tree dwellers in their natural habitat, occupying any area where there are tree hollows for shelter and sufficient food, often living in groups of 15 to 30 — up to 7 adults, plus the current season’s young, all sharing a nest and defending their territory.
Possy Possum, February 27 2008. Photo Koalawrangler
Possy Possum, May 21 2008. Photo Koalawrangler
They’re active at night when they hunt for insects and small vertebrates, and feed on the sweet sap of certain species of eucalyptus, acacia and gum trees, nectar, pollen, and arthropods. Often difficult to see in the wild, a sure sign of their presence is the stripping of bark and tooth marks left in the soft, green shoots of acacia trees.
Adult males mark the territory and members of the group with saliva and a scent produced by separate glands on the forehead and chest. Visiting Sugar Gliders that lack the appropriate scent marking are expelled violently. The dominant male mates more frequently with the female of the group than the other males, and does most of the scent marking. When adult members of the group die, they’re usually replaced by one of the group’s offspring if female, or an outsider if they’re male.
Breeding begins in mid-winter (June or July) in the south, but there seems to be no particular breeding season in the north. Females typically give birth to 2 young which remain in the pouch for about 70 days. Once out of the pouch, they remain inside the nest for another 40 to 50 days, then begin to forage outside, under the mother’s care.
Young are usually ejected from the group territory at 7 to 10 months of age. They sometimes form new groups if an area is vacant, but competition for territory is fierce and not many survive the first months of independent life. In captivity, they can live from 10 to 15 years.
Possy Possum, May 21 2008. Photo Koalawrangler
Despite the massive loss of natural habitat in Australia, these creatures are adaptable and capable of living in small patches of remnant bush, especially if it does not have to cross large expanses of clear-felled land to reach them.
The Sugar Glider is not endangered, but several close relatives are, particularly Leadbeater’s Possum and the Mahogany Glider — which looks almost exactly like a Sugar Glider to the untrained eye. They are protected by law in Australia, being illegal to keep without a permit, or to capture or sell without a license under special circumstances.
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