Savanna glider: a master of disguise hiding in plain sight

Name: Savanna glider (Petaurus ariel), previously known as a subspecies of sugar glider.

Size: Varies in size and fluffiness depending where you encounter it. Length: 12-22cm (body), plus a 15-27cm fluffy tail. Weight: 50-150g.

Diet: While technically an omnivore, the savanna glider predominantly feeds on tree sap, nectar and pollen but will occasionally feed on invertebrates, grass seeds and even geckoes.

Habitat: Found in the eucalypt-dominated tropical savannas on northern Australia, from the Kimberley in Western Australia through to the Gulf of Carpentaria in western Queensland.

Conservation status: Least Concern

Superpower: Master of disguise!

Savanna glider nitmiluknpcollared. Savanna glider in nitmiluk np radio tracking collar visible photo credit al
Savanna glider in Nitmiluk NP (radio-tracking collar visible). Credit: Aline Gibson Vega

Okay, so maybe the savanna glider isn’t a complete ninja, but it did manage to fool scientists for a long time as to its true identify. Since its first discovery by Western scientists in 1842, the glider that occurs across the savannas of northern Australia was thought to be a subspecies of the common sugar glider. However, in 2021 it was formally recognised as a new and previously undescribed species. The savanna glider is the only gliding mammal found in WA and the NT.

Gliding mammals are generally very cool animals, silently navigating their way through woodlands and forests at night by spreading out their gliding membrane (think base jumper) and gliding (falling with style) from tree to tree. During the day gliders den (aka sleep) in tree hollows, sometimes alone, sometimes with a mate, and sometimes with a few mates.  

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The savanna glider is unique in that its size and ecology varies considerably across its distribution, largely due to significant changes in its external environment. The smallest savanna glider recorded so far is from Melville Island in the Tiwis, weighing in at an adorable 48g, compared to the largest glider on record from Judbarra National Park in the Victoria River region of NT, being three times the size (and three times the fluffiness), weighing in at 151g. This variation in size also corresponds to variation in the savanna gliders’ ecology, including significant variation in home range size, nightly travel distance, density, and the number of mates the glider chooses to den with. This has important conservation management implications, as savanna gliders in the southern end of their range are in fewer numbers and need more space to get the resources they require. Such marked variation in their ecology highlights how savanna gliders have had to adapt themselves to survive in this unique environment.

Savanna glider judburranpfeeding
Savanna glider licking water off apple to keep hydrated before being released after a morning trapping session in Judbarra NP. Credit: Alyson Stobo-Wilson

Thus, the savanna glider should also be considered a survivor! In fact, due to severe and ongoing declines of small and medium-sized mammals in northern Australia, it is one of few native mammals that you will still see scurrying about in the savanna at night. A lot of its other tree-dwelling friends now have very restricted ranges only occurring in the coastal, mesic areas of their former ranges – see the golden-backed tree-rat, but don’t you dare give it your vote!

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that everything is fine and dandy for the savanna glider. Recent research has shown it has likely declined from a third of its former range. To help prevent the savanna glider from following the sad trajectory of its neighbours, it’s important to put this wonderful mammal on the radar of every mammal enthusiast (and beyond). Because there is nothing more delightful than walking through the savanna at night and watching a savanna glider nose-deep in the honey-scented blossom of a woollybutt (Eucalyptus miniata).

Savanna glider on salmon gum in nitmiluk np ear tag visible photo credit aline gibson. Credit aline gibson vega
Savanna glider on salmon gum in Nitmiluk NP (ear tag visible). Credit: Aline Gibson Vega

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