A silhouette flashing through the canopy above, a slap on a nearby tree trunk – that’s how Donna and Charlie from Hurley St, Longwood first realized they had gliders living in the trees around their home. And they didn’t just see these nocturnal visitors once; it became a semi-regular occurrence, especially when some garden trees, Red Ironbark and Lemon-scented Gum, were in flower.

There are several types of marsupial glider in the Longwood district, so Donna and Charlie couldn’t be sure exactly which species they were seeing. After alerting Strathbogie Ranges Conservation to their find, I visited Donna, Charlie and neighbours Anne and Paul in Lyddy St (just off Hurley St) and was able to confirm that these animals were Squirrel Gliders (scientific name Petaurus norfolcensis), a threatened species in Victoria. In fact, that night we saw not one, but two Squirrel Gliders – an adult female accompanied by a juvenile, one of her offspring – the two stayed close to each other, usually in the same or adjoining trees. On one occasion the juvenile glider sought reassurance from its mother by joining it on a branch and having a few seconds of physical contact.

A thermal (infra red) video of a Squirrel Glider (Petaurus norfolcensis) climbing and gliding through trees in Longwood township.

This is the first confirmed record of the Squirrel Glider in Longwood township. Donna remarked “ We were just thrilled to learn we had something so special in our backyard. Now that we know, we’ll make even more effort to look after our local gum trees and we’ll probably put up even more nest-boxes as homes for the gliders.”

Finding Squirrel Gliders in Longwood is certainly exciting, but it may well be that Longwood township is a local stronghold for the species. Not only are there still good numbers of trees of a variety of species on many blocks and along creeks and roadsides, but this township habitat is well connected to the surrounding landscape, by the numerous linear vegetation corridors along local creeks, roadsides and the Melbourne-Wodonga rail line (where we know gliders also occur). Though we’ll need to conduct additional surveys to confirm this. Discussions are already underway.

Satellite image close-up of Longwood township showing the location of the observed Squirrel Gliders. Trees in the urbanized parts of the town are still fairly well connected – gaps of more than 50 m between trees (yellow bar and arrow) are significant barriers to glider movement.
Satellite image of Longwood township located within a landscape cleared of almost all its original native vegetation – the last remnants occur as narrow, linear bands. It’s in these tiny pockets of native vegetation that Squirrel Gliders and most other native species of flora and fauna now live.

This short video of the adult female Squirrel Glider we observed in Longwood shows well the long, very fluffy tail and creamy-white underparts. The gliding membrane is visible only as folds of skin between the front and hind legs. This animals was about 25 m above ground and alert to the human commentary, below. There were other possums and two Tawny Frogmouths around us, competing for our attention.

In recent years, I’ve taken to walking empty country lanes and roads at night, in search of elusive creatures like Squirrel Gliders, Brush-tailed Phascogales and Feathertail Gliders. A better understanding of where these species still survive could help us improve our conservation efforts. Squirrel Gliders have a diet of insects, nectar, gum and occasionally bird eggs and nestlings. They live in tree hollows, forage over quite large areas (from several up to 10 ha, depending on habitat shape and quality), and are very agile climbers. Membranes of furred skin between their front and hind limbs allow them to glide for distances up to about 50 m between trees. Though a threatened species, Squirrel Gliders are a pretty resilient. As long as there are good numbers of big, old trees – like River Red Gum, Grey Box, Yellow Box and Red Box and not too many gaps in the canopy – they can survive quite well.

In days gone by, the best chance of seeing a Squirrel Glider, or the closely related Sugar Glider, was to use a spotlight to search for their weak eye-shine, or hope to see them moving or gliding through the canopy. Not surprisingly, that technique was hit and miss – mainly miss. The recent development of affordable thermal imaging technology means that these cryptic, often fast moving tree-top dwellers can be detected with confidence and at considerable distance. As long as they aren’t obscured by a tree trunk, or very dense foliage, there is nowhere for them to hide – camouflage and staying motionless is no defense.

The biggest threat to these amazingly cute little acrobats is the incremental loss of their habitat. It’s the classic ‘death by a thousand cuts’ problem. The species will survive in an area for a long time, seemingly doing well, then, one day you’ll realize they’ve disappeared – that’s how local extinction often happens. And it’ll be because a stretch of trees connecting two areas of habitat is cleared, or the tree canopy just becomes too spread out, too fragmented, so that the gliders find it increasingly difficult to get around without coming to ground, where they become easy prey for foxes and cats.

Other Squirrel Glider posts:

Squirrel Gliders on the Molyullah floodplain

Night view II – Squirrel Glider

The Squirrel Glider survey work being conducted on the Longwood Plains is supported by Strathbogie Ranges Conservation, the Urquhart Charitable Fund and Trust for Nature, and by Longwood Plains CMN.