Mar­su­pial glid­ers

Rather than merely climb, some in­ge­nious pos­sums have taken to the air to swoop be­tween the trees of Australian forests.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - TEXT BY NATSUMI PENBERTHY IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS BY KEVIN STEAD

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.

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