The Feathertail Glider is undoubtedly one of the cutest marsupials going.

Tragically, this poor little fellow (below) was found dead by Tony Brell on his Strathbogie farm in late March 2020. It’s a Feathertail Glider – note the feather-like fringe of stiff hairs on the tail. This amazing structure not only makes the animal immediately recognizable, it helps it to steer and brake when gliding and to anchor itself among foliage. The images show some of the body detail, including those characteristics used to positively identify it as the Narrow-toed Feathertail Glider (Acrobates pygmaeus): pale margins to tail fringe, furred underside of tail-tip, belly fur with grey base and, the clincher, fourth and fifth toes on hind feet are narrow, not heart-shaped.

Until a few years ago, the Feathertail Glider was considered a single species that occurred widely in the eastern states. If you saw a living specimen, it was usually a fleeting glimpse in the trees at night. Or it might be the cat that brought its quarry to the back door – you didn’t have to get too close to recognize the distinctive tail and know that it was a tiny Feathertail Glider.

Map 1. The distribution of the Feathertail Glider (Acrobates pygmaeus) (Source: Wikipedia)

Then, in 2012, scientists recognized that, what for a long time had been thought to be one species, was actually two. We still have Acrobates pygmaeus, newly named the Narrow-toed Feathertail Glider, but now we also have the new kid on the block, A. frontalis, the Broad-toed Feathertail Glider. The juxtaposed common names are a strong clue to what helps to separate the two species – the width of the toes.

Frustratingly, because the two species are so similar, a lot of distribution records that were based on field observations cannot be reclassified into one or the other of the new species and this is especially true for Victoria, because both species occur here.

The maps suggest that either, or both species could occur here in the Strathbogie Ranges and much of southern Victoria. Thanks to the specimen found by Tony, we can begin filling in the picture. Incidentally, the header image at top, taken by naturalist Dan Pendavingh in the Strathbogie Forest, has been identified as also being the Narrow-toed Feathertail Glider – perhaps a pattern is emerging?

For those keen on the detail, here’s the detail.

Key to the differences between the Narrow- and Broad-toed Feathertail Glider (Source: Van Dyck, Gynther and Baker (2013) Field companion to the mammals of Australia).

Here’s a call-out to anyone in Victoria that finds a dead, or living, Feathertail Glider – please get in touch with your local Environment Department, environment group, or local naturalists and let them know. Good photos can aid identification, but being able to examine a specimen closely is even better.

Thanks to Jerry and Dan for helping with this feathery tale.

Note: taxonomy is not always an exact science. Some researchers are more inclined to view differences between populations as evidence of speciation, other less. There is still debate about the Acrobates pygmaeus/frontalis split and, as far as I know, there’s no genetic basis for the split. Some authorities and databases recognize the two new species, others don’t. Time will tell.

The image files in this post are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

This is part of the Strathbogie Forest Citizen Science Project which is supported by the Victorian Government.