Sugar glider
Small Pets

Sugar glider

Sugar glider information

The Sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps) is a small marsupial native to Australia and New Guinea, including the Bismarck Archipelago. It is sometimes mistaken for a flying squirrel since both animals can glide through the air by spreading out their limbs in a parachute fashion, but they are not even closely related species. Wild sugar gliders feed on nectar and on the sweet sap of certain species of eucalyptus, acacia and gum tree, hence the name Sugar glider. They also eat pollen, insects and small vertebrates.

If given plenty of attention and affection, sugar gliders can bond strongly to their human keepers and become friendly pets. Before getting a sugar glider, check with local authorities to see if you need a permit. It is for instance illegal to keep them without a permit in their native Australia.  

Like many other Australian animals, e.g. kangaroos and koalas, sugar gliders are marsupials. They give birth after a very short gestation period and the youngsters stay hidden inside a pouch where they feed on milk.  

In the wild
Learning about the habits of wild sugar gliders will make it easier for you to provide your pet with the right care and understand its needs and behaviors. In the wild, sugar gliders seek out environments with tree hollows where they form groups consisting of up to seven adults and the current season's young. They are social creatures that spend a lot of time interacting with each other; they share the same nest and will defend their territory with violence if necessary. It is sometimes difficult to realize that you are in sugar glider territory since these animals are small, nocturnal and easily spooked, but stripped bark and the sight of tooth marks left in the soft, green shoots of acacia trees are two reliable signs.

The males use saliva and scent produced by glands on the forehead and chest to mark the territory and this scent will also be transferred to all the members of the group so they can recognize each other by smell. When an adult female dies, one of the young females in the group will take her place, but when an adult male dies he will be replaced by an outsider.

Anatomy and appearance
A sugar glider is roughly 16-21 cm (6.3-7.5 in) long from nose tip to tail base and has a tail almost as long as the body and nearly as thick as a human thumb. The tail only exhibit moderate tapering and the last quarter is black. The muzzle is short and rounded and the ears are grey or black. The body of a sugar glider is covered in pearly grey or brownish fur with cream colored patches on the underbelly and a black stripe running along the back. Sugar gliders weigh around 90-150 grams (3 to 5.3 oz), with the males typically being a bit heavier than the females. Specimens native to the northern part of the species range, where the climate is warmer, are usually smaller than their southern counterparts and are more brown than grey.  

The most striking part of the sugar glider anatomy is naturally the twin skin membranes extending from the fifth finger of the forelimb back to the first toe of the hind foot. When fully extended, these skin membranes – formally known as patagia (sing. patagium) – form a sleek surface that makes it possible for the sugar glider to glide through the air from tree to tree in search of food. The membranes are also used to gather food.  

Although the membranes are believed to have developed as a food finding aid, they may also be valuable when the sugar glider is attacked by predators such as goannas, quolls, antechinuses, and mulgaras. Unfortunately for the sugar glider, they are of little use when assaulted by kookaburras and other birds of prey.  

The membranes are usually pink in colour and surrounded by a thin layer of fur. When the sugar glider is not gliding, they look like somewhat flabby pieces of skin.  

Sugar glider taxonomy

Kingdom:      Animalia
Phylum:         Chordata
Class:            Mammalia
Infraclass:     Marsupialia
Order:           Diprotodontia
Family:          Petauridae
Genus:           Petaurus
Species:         Petaurus breviceps

There are seven subspecies of Petaurus breviceps:

  • P. b. ariel
  • P. b. biacensis
  • P. b. breviceps
  • P. b. flavidus
  • P. b. longicaudatus
  • P. b. papuanus
  • P. b. tafa

Sugar glider care

Sugar gliders are nocturnal animals that must be provided with a calm place in which to sleep during the day and opportunity to play and exercise during the night. They are lively and curious creatures that need a lot of social interaction to stay happy. Take them out of their cage and let them be with you for several hours per day; they can learn to sit on your shoulder while you go about your business. You can also let them out to explore your home, but keep on eye on them to prevent accidents and don’t let them into rooms where you keep poisonous plants.

Sugar gliders are normally kept in cages decorated with branches and bird perches. As mentioned above, these animals live in tree cavities in the wild so you need to give them a nesting box to make them feel safe in captivity. If you have to choose, the height of the cage is more important than the width since sugar gliders love to climb. Do not place the cage where your sugar glider can see large birds, since sugar gliders are extremely afraid of them.

 To make life less boring in captivity, give your sugar glider things to explore and play with. Hollow logs and PVC-pipes are very interesting, and many toys intended for parrots will also work.

Since sugar gliders are such social creatures it can be difficult for a human keeper to provide them with enough interaction and keeping more than one sugar glider is therefore a good idea. When introducing sugar gliders to each other, you need to keep an eye on them for a while to make sure they get along. Do not house males and females together unless you intend to breed sugar gliders. Generally speaking, sugar gliders will not get along with flying squirrels if forced to share a cage.

When you bring a new sugar glider home, don’t expect it to be interested in cuddling right away. You need to take it slow and give your new pet a chance to get used to you and realize that you are a nice and friendly creature that won’t harm it. Always announce yourself before picking it up and do not make any fast movements. Use a cupped hand to support its entire body and speak to your sugar glider in a soft voice.  

Most breeders recommend purchasing fairly young sugar gliders to ease the bonding process. They should have had their eyes open for at least 4-6 weeks but not have been completely weaned for very long. Both male and female sugar gliders are known to make great pets and their behaviour does not vary much. 

Once your sugar glider has begun to like you, you can teach it to glide to you (provided of course that it is old enough to glide). Put it up somewhere high, place a treat in your hand and place your hand close enough for the sugar glider to step into it without gliding. Do the same over and over again, gradually placing your hand farther and farther away. Eventually, the glider will have to make pretty large leaps to get to the treat and soon it will be gliding through the air.

If you decide to take your sugar glider out, do not let it near high trees or similar since they love to climb and might not wish to come down when you think its time to go home. A harness can be used for added security. Also, don’t bring them out when it’s sunny since they are nocturnal creatures with eyes adapted for dark environments.

Sugar glider feeding

Wild sugar gliders spend the night hunting insects and small vertebrates and visiting various trees where they gobble down nectar, pollen, and the sweet sap of certain species of eucalyptus, acacia and gum tree. The diet of wild sugar gliders vary with both geography and the changing seasons so it is important to keep captive sugar gliders on varied diet containing many different nutrients.

The diet should be comprised of approximately 3 parts veggies (vegetables, fruits, and similar) for each part protein. Serve lean protein only; these creatures catch insects and small vertebrates in the wild, not fatty pigs. Lean meat and eggs are known to work well, and yogurt and cottage cheese seem to be tolerated (at least in reasonable quantities) even though sugar gliders would naturally never encounter diary products in the wild. A benefit of (low-fat and non-sweetened) diary products is that they will provide your sugar glider with calcium. In the wild, sugar gliders obtain calcium by eating whole prey, which conveniently brings us to the subject of live food. If you want to make life in captivity a little more exiting for your sugar gliders, serve them live food. You can purchase live worms, crickets, grasshoppers and similar from a pet shop or cultivate them yourself. Sugar gliders love live food and you will get a chance to observe their natural hunting techniques.

The vegetables should be fresh (or thawed); avoid canned and dried foods. Nuts and seeds are beneficial but should only be used as threats since they are very rich in energy.  

Since this species normally feed high up in trees during the night, your sugar glider will prefer to have its food bowl placed high in the cage and find it filled with food as he wakes up in the evening. To know how much to feed, give your glider a small serving and gradually increase it each evening until one morning you find some food left in the bowl. Sugar gliders will get most of their water from fruit and vegetables but should nevertheless have access to fresh water at all times in captivity.  

Foods rich in phosphorus can lead to calcium deficiency since phosphorus makes it harder for sugar gliders to absorb calcium from their diet.

Sugar glider breeding

Sugar gliders living in the northern part of the species range have no particular breeding season while those that inhabit the southern parts, where the climate is colder, mate in June or July, i.e. in the middle of the winter. The dominant male (who also does most of the scent marking) will mate more frequently with the female of the group than the other males. The female sugar glider typically gives birth to two young which stays in her pouch for about 70 days. After leaving the pouch, they remain in the nest for another 40-50 days before venturing outside to forage supervised by their mother. When the young have reached an age of 7-10 months, they are normally expelled from the group and no longer allowed to stay within the territory. A female can however be allowed to stay if an adult female has died. Expelled sugar gliders will search for a suitable vacant area with but competition for territory is fierce and many sugar gliders do not survive their first months of life outside the group of their parents.

Breeding sugar gliders is not a task to be taken lightly; it must be carried out in a knowledgeable and devoted manner. It is also important to check with local authorities to see if you need a breeding permit.

Sugar gliders reach sexual maturity when they are 8-14 months of age. The estrous cycle of the female is 29 days long. In a warm enough environment with sufficient amounts of food they do not have any specific breeding period and can produce up to three litters a year. During mating, the male will grab hold of the female and keep her still. The gestation period is no longer than 16 days after which the female gives birth to 1-4 (usually 2) blind and deaf young. As mentioned above, they will stay in the pouch for roughly 70 days and then spend another 40-50 days inside the nest, so it is important for reproducing sugar gliders to have access to large enough nesting boxes. Directly after being born, sugar gliders find their way to their mother’s pouch and grab on to a nipple.

There is no need to separate the male from the female after mating; it is actually beneficial to let him stay since he will help rare the young just as he would in the wild. Once the babies emerge from the pouch, they will start riding on the back of either the mother or the father, sticking their heads back into the pouch now and then to nurse. They will start nibbling at fruits and vegetables roughly three weeks after having opened their eyes and you can expect them to be fully weaned at an age of roughly five months.

It is not advisable to handle sugar gliders until their eyes have opened. Only handle them for short periods of time in the beginning to give them a chance to gradually grow accustomed to your scent. o

Sugar glider health

Things you can do to reduce the risk of poor health in sugar gliders

  • Keep your sugar glider in a suitable environment.
  • Provide it with a varied, nutritious diet.
  • Make sure it gets enough mental and physical stimulation, as well as social interaction
  • Don’t forget that many common household objects can be hazardous for free roaming sugar gliders, such as open toilets, hot stoves and poisonous plants.
  • Always handle your sugar glider gently. If you let anyone else handle it, make sure you instruct them first on how to properly hold sugar gliders. Both kids and adults may fail to realise how sensitive these creatures really are.

Common symptoms of poor health in sugar gliders

  • Lethargy
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Weight loss  
  • Changed faeces
  • Vomiting  
  • Dirty, unkempt fur
  • Bald patches
  • Red and scaly skin
  • Abscesses
  • Laboured breathing
  • Paralysis or difficulty moving 

Calcium deficiency
Calcium deficiency is unfortunately fairly common in captive kept sugar gliders and usually the result of a diet too rich in phosphorus. Cutting down on phosphorus and serving your pet more calcium will usually solve the problem, but preventing it from occurring in the first place is naturally better. Calcium deficiency can lead to paralysis and difficulty moving, and it will weaken the bones of your sugar glider, making it highly susceptible to injury. Broken bones and other severe symptoms should be treated by a veterinarian.

Constipation is common among sugar gliders fed dry foods, e.g. dry cat or dog foods, and can also be an indication of the diet being too low in fibers. Constipated sugar gliders will not poop as much as they normally do and their bellies will be extended. Get them off the dry food and make sure their diet is rich in fiber. Sugar gliders should always have access to fresh water at all times.  

Diarrhea can be caused by a long row of things, such as gastroenteritis, toxins, lactose intolerance, or too much citrus fruits in the diet. Stress can also cause water droppings. Try to figure out if you have made any changes to the diet lately or if anything is stressing your sugar glider. You may have to consult a vet.  

Sugar gliders can become infested with both internal and external parasites, such as tapeworms, hookworms, and roundworms and lice, fleas, ticks, and mites. Ideally consult a veterinarian to find out the best course of action, because some over-the-counter remedies are known to interfere with the sugar gliders’ sense of smell and cause undue stress.   

Sugar glider facts

Sugar glider facts # 1
Unlike many other Australian animals, the sugar glider is not endangered in the wild and is actually listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is an adaptable species that can survive in surprisingly small patches of bush; abilities which have made it possible for the species to survive the massive habitat destruction that has taken place in Australia during the last 200 years. Several relatives of Petaurus breviceps have proven less capable of adapting and are now endangered, e.g. the Mahogany Glider (Petaurus gracilis) and Leadbeater's Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri).    

Sugar glider facts # 2
The species name Petaurus breviceps roughly means “short headed tightrope walker”. The genus name Petaurus means “tightrope walker” or “rope dancer”, while breviceps means “short head”.

Sugar glider facts # 3
In the wild, sugar gliders rarely if ever touch the ground. They are born in tree hollows and will do their best to remain up high for their entire life.

Sugar glider facts # 4
Sugar gliders can glide for surprisingly long distances and navigate effectively through the air by curving one patagium (skin membrane) or the other. Flights lasting for up to 50 metres (164 feet) have been measured. When the sugar glider leaves a tree, it gives itself a powerful thrust using its strong hind legs. When it is roughly 3 metres (10 feet) from a tree trunk where it wishes to land, it will bring its hind legs up close to the body and make a swooping upward movement. By doing so, it can make contact with all four limbs together. 

Sugar glider facts # 5
Sugar glider babies are called joeys and weigh no more than 0.2 grams (0.007 ounces) at birth.  

Sugar glider lifespan

Captive kept sugar gliders can reach an age of 15 years.


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