Mahogany glider: this glorious glider could soar over a Boeing 777’s wings

Name(s): Mahogany Glider (Petaurus gracilis)

Size:  Length – approximately 67cm from head to tail; up to 500g in weight.

Diet: Omnivore.

Habitat/range: Restricted to the southern Wet Tropics of north Queensland, from the Hull River (east of Tully) south to Ollera Creek, south-east of Ingham, and extending inland about 100km. 

Conservation status: Endangered.

Superpower: Returning from the dead! Presumed extinct, the mahogany glider was not seen in the wild for more than 100 years!

A mahogany glider on a tree branch
Mahogany glider. Credit: Pfinge (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ostensibly named for both its mahogany colouring, and the importance of swamp mahogany (Lophostemon suaveolens) in its habitat, the mahogany glider has the misfortune to be considered one of Australia’s most endangered mammals.  

First discovered by a collector from the Queensland Museum in around 1886, the mahogany glider then went missing in action and was not seen again in the wild until 1989. Only found along a narrow sliver of suitable habitat in north Queensland – about 122km long and 100km wide, between about Tully and Ingham – its naturally limited geographic distribution likely contributed to the species gliding under the radar of scientists for over a century.

Preferring lowland, open eucalypt and melaleuca coastal woodlands, recent habitat models indicate that the mahogany glider is unlikely to occur much outside its presently known slim distribution; it does not occur in rainforest, and appears to be ecologically replaced by the squirrel glider in drier forests outside the Wet Tropics bioregion.

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Larger than their close relatives the sugar and squirrel gliders, adult mahogany gliders can weigh up to half a kilo and be more than half a meter in total body length. Remarkably, this species has been known to cover up to 60 meters in a single glide – the equivalent of the wingspan of a Boeing 777!

The mahogany glider has been shown to have an incredibly diverse diet consuming everything from nectar, pollen and sap to insects, mistletoe fruit and acacia arils. To obtain the ingredients for this native charcuterie board, it’s thought that the gliders depend on complex seasonal cycles of food availability across their home ranges, which can be up to 20 hectares in size – much larger than that of other small gliders.

A mahogany glider clutching a tree limb upside down
Mahogany glider. Credit: Owen Lishmund (CC BY-NC 4.0)

The biggest threat to mahogany gliders is habitat loss and fragmentation – an estimated 50% of their historical range has been lost or fragmented. They are also impacted by barbed wire fences and are often found caught on fences, if not already dead, with severe injuries to their patagium – the gliding membrane that stretches between the wrists and ankles.

Following a further hit to their habitat from Cyclone Yasi in 2011, several conservation initiatives have been implemented to help these glorious gliders out. These include planting to increase habitat connectivity, habitat creation including fauna rope bridge crossings and installation of nest boxes, and encouraging landowners to use wildlife friendly fencing.

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