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The greater glider (Petauroides volans) is a small gliding marsupial found in Australia. It is not closely related to the Petaurus group of gliding marsupials but instead to the lemur-like ringtail possum (Hemibelideus lemuroides), with which it shares the subfamily Hemibelideinae.
The greater glider is nocturnal and is a solitary herbivore feeding almost exclusively on Eucalyptus leaves and buds. Like its relative the lemur-like ringtail, the greater glider is found in two forms: a sooty brown form, or a grey-to-white form.
Anatomy and physiology
Greater gliders have a head and body about 39 to 43 centimetres (15 to 17 in) long, with the females being generally larger than the males. Their body is covered with a shaggy coat of fur that increases their apparent size, and the tail is long and bushy, ranging from 44 to 53 centimetres (17 to 21 in). The head is short, but with a pointed muzzle, and large ears fringed and backed with long fur. Each side of the body bears membranes stretching between the elbow and the ankle, that give the animal the ability to perform controlled glides. This is in contrast to other gliding marsupials (such as the sugar glider) that have gliding membranes stretching from the wrists to the ankles.
The feet have strongly recurved claws to grip onto bark or other surfaces. There are five toes on each foot, with the first toe on the hind foot, and the first two toes on the fore foot, being opposable.
The fur is soft and up to 60 millimetres (2.4 in) long; the colour is variable within the same populations, ranging from white to brown and charcoal. Body mass varies clinally from about 1,600 grams (3.5 lb) in southern Victoria to about 600 grams (1.3 lb) in north Queensland.
Heat management in the greater glider is performed by licking extremities and the ventral body surface, with direct evaporation being the main method of the cooling. Furthermore, the glider can use its gliding membranes to reduce heat loss by increasing the layer of insulation at the skin surface. However, the greater glider is not well equipped to handle high ambient temperatures, as it inefficiently uses water for evaporation via salivation even though arboreal habitats are often limited in water accessibility.
The greater glider can digest low nutrient foliage, specifically eucalypt leaf matter, which contains a variety of phenolic and terpenoid compounds and a high concentration of lignified fibre. Animals can digest about 50–60% of the leaf during its passage through the gut  The gut has a specialized caecum that is contains a population of bacteria that ferment food residues that remain undigested in the small intestine. For a population in a eucalypt forest near Maryborough, Queensland, it has been calculated that their daily energy intake is about 1130 kJ, which is provided by about 45 to 50 grams (0.099 to 0.110 lb) of dry matter daily.
Mature females will give birth to a single progeny, each year which is typically born in late autumn or early winter. The underdeveloped offspring will then spend the next four months within the pouch of the mother to suckle and develop. It will remain within the security of the pouch until about nine months of age.
Distribution and habitat
The greater glider is found in southern Queensland, eastern Australia, southeastern New South Wales, and the montane forests of the Victorian central highlands. The Greater Glider is usually tracked via spotlighting on transects (considered to underestimate the actual population size), radio tagging and owl-call playback.
There are two recognised subspecies:
- Petauroides volans volans – temperate and subtropical Victoria, NSW, and Queensland
- Petauroides volans minor – tropical Queensland
The greater glider chooses habitat based on several factors. A large factor determining habitat choice is the presence of specific species of eucalypt. Distribution levels are higher in regions of montane forest containing Manna Gum (E. viminalis) and Mountain Gum (E. dalrympleana, E. obliqua). Furthermore, the presence of E. cypellocarpa appears to improve the quality of habitat for the greater glider in forests dominated by E. obliqua. Another factor determining population density is elevation. Optimal levels are 845 m above sea level. Within a forest of suitable habitat, they prefer overstorey basal areas in old-growth tree stands.
The greater glider is primarily nocturnal, spending the night foraging in the highest parts of the forest canopy. During the day, it spends most of its time denning in hollowed trees, with each animal using up to twenty different dens within its home range. The dens are often lined with leaves and strips of bark. This is why spotlighting has become a popular way of locating members of a population; when a strong light is directed at the eyes of a glider, the observer will see two bright red orbs reflecting back.
Within forests, males and females will have home territories and set borders between other members. For males, home territory ranges from 1.4 to 4.1 hectares (3.5 to 10.1 acres) while that of females is only 1.3 to 3.0 hectares (3.2 to 7.4 acres). Although home ranges may overlap, the animals remain generally solitary outside of the breeding season, and only rarely interact. In large and small patches of forest, the home territories will respectively be larger and smaller.
The gliding posture of the greater glider is unique among marsupials. The forelimbs are folded so that the wrists are tucked under the chin, giving the patagium a triangular outline when outstretched. The animal regularly glides between high trees, and is able to use the tail to assist in steering. They avoid travelling along the ground whenever possible, and are slow and clumsy if forced to do so.
Greater gliders subsist almost entirely on the young leaves and flower buds of select eucalypt species, especially Eucalyptus radiata, Eucalyptus viminalis, and Eucalyptus acmenoides. Young leaves are preferred because they have higher concentration of nitrogen and lower concentration of lignocellulose (acid-detergent fibre). Overall, the eucalypt leaves are a poor source of nutrients.
Because of its night time activities, a natural predator on the glider is the Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua). It hunts by concentrating in pockets within their relatively large home range until populations of prey are depleted to a level that causes the owl to shift hunting grounds. Other predators include feral cats, which are not native to Australia, being introduced with the arrival of Europeans.
The breeding season for greater glider is relatively brief, lasting from February to May, with births occurring between April and June. Females have a relatively well-developed pouch, opening towards the forward part of the animal, and containing two teats. Only a single young is born each year.
At birth, the young weighs only around 0.27 grams (0.0095 oz), but it does not begin to leave the pouch for about four months, by which time it is already furred and well developed. After leaving the pouch, the mother may carry it about on her back, until it is weaned at about seven months of age. The young are independent at nine months, and reach sexual maturity between 18 months and two years after birth.
Greater gliders have been recorded as living for up to fifteen years.
Although previously thought to be related to the other gliding possums, the greater glider is now known to be most closely related to the ringtail possums, and especially to the lemur-like ringtail possum, from which its ancestors diverged around 18 million years ago. In contrast, it diverged from the gliding possums much earlier, around 36 million years ago. Fossils of greater gliders are known from the late Pleistocene onwards, and show that the animal was once more widespread, also being found in at least some areas of South Australia.
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