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Feathertail GliderFEATHERTAIL GLIDER

(Acrobates pygmaeus)

The common name of this species draws attention to a structure which helps it to volplane, steer, brake, and anchor itself: the tail is flattened, with very short fur on the upper and lower surfaces and a conspicuous fringe of stiff hairs, resembling the barbs of a feather, along each edge.

The Feathertail Glider is widely distributed in the tall, well watered eucalypt forests of the eastern coast and extends inland into the drier regions of more stunted sclerophyll forest and woodland. Although arboreal, it is not restricted to the forest canopy, it forages through the shrub layer where this forms a thicket, as with lantana, and hunts over the trunks of rough-barked trees, almost to ground level. It feeds on nectar, manna, sugary sap exuding from incisions made by other marsupials, and small insects found on the trunks, foliage, and blossoms of trees. Aggregations of as many as 40 have been observed in profusely flowering trees.

Normally active at night throughout the year in all weathers, it moves very swiftly,
racing along the trunk or limbs of trees and leaping through the uppermost foliage, even in strong wind. Subject to a wide range of predators, it takes alarm at slight provocation and may leap or glide so hurriedly that it ends up on the ground, where it may 'freeze' for many minutes or set off immediately in a leaping scamper towards the nearest tree. A Feathertail may become torpid during the day in cold weather.

The gliding membrane, which extends from the elbow to the knee, is relatively smaller and thicker than in any other gliding marsupial, yet an individual can easily traverse 20 m in one glide, usually travelling directly to the chosen landing point. At times, however, an animal may take a helical path around the trunk of the tree or slow its flight by fluttering the membrane and tail. The large pads on the toes resemble those of geckos and have a finely serrated structure which enables the animals to cling to smooth surfaces, even vertical panes of glass.

The globular nests, built of dried, overlapping eucalyptus leaves, have been found in hollow tree limbs, the nests of other animals, boxes on telephone poles, plastic bags used as bunch covers for bananas and, on one occasion, an old coat hanging on a tree. Up to 16 individuals have been recorded from a single nest.

The sexes are similar in size and superficial appearance. The female has 4 teats in the pouch but seldom carries more than 3 young. Breeding occurs throughout most of the year in the northern part of the range but in late winter, spring and summer in the south. Since a female can become pregnant while carrying young in the pouch, litters may be reared in quick succession.

SIZE:
HEAD AND BODY LENGTH: 65-80 mm
TAIL LENGTH: 70-80 mm
WEIGHT: 10-14 g

IDENTIFICATION: No other Australian mammal has a feather-like tail (although this is found in related species from New Guinea).

RECENT SYNONYMS: None.

OTHER COMMON NAMES: Pygmy Glider, Pygmy Phalanger, Flying Mouse.

STATUS: Common.

SUBSPECIES: A supposed subspecies Acrobates pygmaeus frontalis from northern Queensland was based on poorly described juvenile specimens.

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