The finding is worrying, as it shows that there are fewer sugar gliders than previously thought. The conservation status of the species must be reassessed.
Researchers at Charles Darwin University in Australia found that the tiny – and charismatic – sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps) is at greater risk of extinction than previously thought, especially after fires that devastated southeastern Australia between 2019 and 2020.
In a study, published in July in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, scientists say there are three species of the mammal, and not just one, as previously believed.
According to the scientists, the research began when a previous investigation into the genetics of these animals raised questions about the identity of the gliders found in northern Australia.
They analyzed a specimen at least 150 years old at the Natural History Museum in London, England, and also evaluated more than 300 live gliders in different Australian regions – and were surprised by the results.
They found crucial differences between the animals, leading scientists to reclassify these marsupials into three different species: the sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps), the savanna glider (Petaurus ariel) and the Kreft’s glider (Petaurus notatu).
“The sugar glider and Krefft’s glider, look similar and may co-occur in some areas of south-eastern Australia,” explained Teigan Cremona, co-author of the study, in a statement.
The discovery, however, raises concerns about the conservation status of these species: with the new classification, scientists realized that there are far fewer Petaurus breviceps (sugar glider) than previously believed.
“When considered as one species, sugar gliders were considered widespread and abundant, and classified as Least Concern,” Cremona said. “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.”
An example of recent habitat destruction was forest fires that devastated southeastern Australia between 2019 and 2020, which substantially affected the lives of these animals. According to the researcher, the fires affected regions where sugar gliders used to live.
Another recent study, also conducted by researchers at Charles Darwin University, estimated that the species has suffered a population drop of 35% in the last three decades. That is exactly why conservation measures are so important, as well as more studies on gliders.
“This will enable us to effectively assess the conservation status of each species and the management efforts required to ensure their protection as they face an uncertain future,” Provost Professor Sue Carthew said.