Rather than merely climb, some ingenious possums have taken to the air to swoop between the trees of Australian forests.
FIFTEEN MILLION years ago, much of Australia was still covered in rainforest. Tree-dwelling mammals had no trouble leaping from branch to branch through the dense canopy. Over geologic time, however, as the continent drifted north, the lush vegetation receded, tree cover thinned and mammals in the canopy had to leap further and further. It was then that some marsupials evolved the ability to glide using a membrane of skin called a patagium, which today allows some to swoop as far as 100m. Of the world’s 60-odd gliding mammals, six are found in Australia. These species range from the 1.7kg greater glider to the feathertail glider, the world’s smallest, which weighs just 10–15g. It’s possible that a few million years down the line we may have even more gliders, because some possums (such as the lemuroid ring-tailed) may be partway through the process of evolving their own patagia.