Narrow-toed feather-tailed glider: nocturnal, ethereal sprites of the forest canopy

Name(s): Narrow-toed feather-tailed glider (Acrobates pygmaeus), meaning ‘little acrobat’ in Latin. Also known as the pygmy gliding possum or pygmy glider.

Size: Weight: 10-12g, equivalent to a AAA battery or 10 paper clips. Length: 7cm, equivalent to your index finger.

Diet: Nectar, pollen, and little creatures like moths and ants.

Habitat/range: Hollow-bearing trees in the eucalypt forests of south-eastern Australia, from southern Victoria to southern Queensland.

Conservation status: Least concern.

Superpower/fun fact: Feather-tailed gliders are the only mammal in the world that can walk on vertical panes of glass, just like a gecko. But they can glide almost 30m through the forest canopy, which geckos can only dream of doing.

Narrow-toed feather-tailed glider on a leaf stem
Narrow-toed feather-tailed glider. Credit ©Niall Bradley, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC).

I know what you’re thinking. Sure, mammals are great, but all those that can’t glide might as well be reptiles with a bit of fur and a couple of nipples. So boring. You want a mammal that can glide like a mad person in a wingsuit, run up and down glass like Spiderman, and comfortably fit into that weird little pocket in your jeans that’s too small for anything else. Well, look no further. The narrow-toed feather-tailed glider meets all your specs. So, buckle up and get ready for a wild ride through the ecology and biology of this amazing gliding superhero!

Narrow-toed feather-tailed gliders are the nocturnal, ethereal sprites of the forest canopy. They’re devastatingly cute and they are the smallest gliding mammal in the world, weighing about the same as a single bite of an apple, or the pulp from a passionfruit. And if you’re over 30, they probably have a better social life than you. They live in groups of up to five and typically sleep the day away in spherical nests made from leaves and bark, which they build inside tree hollows.

Narrow-toed feather-tailed glider.
Narrow-toed feather-tailed glider. Credit: Darcy Watchorn

Now, feather-tailed gliders can—of course—glide, and there are three key features which allow them to do this with great proficiency. Firstly, relative to their body size, feather-tailed gliders contain exceedingly high quantities of bravery. In fact, only one animal group—the stand-up comedian—has a higher level of bravery per square-inch. Secondly, feather-tailed gliders have a gliding membrane called a patagium, which is a fold of loose skin extending from the elbows to the knees. Lastly, the feature from which our beloved glider gets its name, it’s tail. And this is no ordinary tail mind you—it’s a fashion statement, a conversation starter, and a fine piece of aerial ingenuity. About the same length as their body (~7cm), the tail is flat and bordered with fine, stiff hairs which grow horizontally along either side, giving it the appearance of a feather, or a double-sided comb, or a dainty lace fan fit for a soirée. Acting as a rudder and a brake, it helps these fluffy little gliding daredevils manoeuvre through the cool forest air with the precision and sex appeal of Maverick from Top Gun. With these three attributes, feather-tailed gliders can glide almost 30m between trees. That’s a long way when you’re only 7cm!

Narrow-toed feather-tailed glider.
Narrow-toed feather-tailed glider. Credit © lake8, some rights reserved (CCBY-NC)

After their graceful venture through the night sky, feather-tailed gliders use the large, serrated pads on their toes to grip the slippery surface of the tree and forage for pollen, nectar, and unlucky insects like moths, spiders, and ants to guiltlessly murder and eat. This foot grip is so profound that they can run along vertical panes of glass. They are the only mammal in the world that can do this! The impressiveness of this skill is only outshone by its sheer uselessness for a forest-dwelling species.

To conserve energy and reduce heat loss during those freezing winter days, feather-tailed gliders can go into torpor (it’s similar to hibernation, but a bit different). Inside the nest, they’ll curl into a ball, wrap their tail over their heads, and huddle together with the rest of the colony. Torpor may last for several days, and their body temperature can drop to as low as 2°C and oxygen consumption can be as low as 1% of the normal rate. Just to clarify, if you tried this, you’d die almost instantly.

So, now you know that feather-tailed gliders are beyond compare. They’re one of Australia’s most unique and underappreciated species, but they’re at risk from stupid activities like native forest logging and clearing, as well as bushfires and climate change. So raise their profile! Make them your Australian mammal of the year! It’s the least they deserve.

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