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Sugar Gliders: Tiny Acrobats

In the last decade or so, the popularity of sugar gliders as pets has grown considerably. The small size of these furry acrobats, their personalities, their plush fur, their large eyes, their agility and their ability to bond closely with humans have attracted legions of new sugar glider devotees. What is a sugar glider and where did they originally come from? Sugar gliders are small marsupials and members of the possum family. They are found in Australia, Tasmania, Indonesia, and New Guinea. Their scientific name is Petaurus breviceps. Most sugar gliders these days are captive-bred and not wild-caught.

Like their larger marsupial cousins, kangaroos, sugar gliders have a pouch where their infants grow and develop. Their young are called "joeys," as are the young of kangaroos. You may come across the term OOP while researching sugar gliders on the internet. OOP means "out-of-pouch" and it indicates how long the joey has been completely out of his mother's pouch. Joeys are ready to go to a new home at approximately 8 weeks OOP.

Sugar gliders are approximately chipmunk-sized, measuring about 9 to 12 inches long (including their long tail), and they weigh about 3 to 6 ounces as adults. Their normal color is steel gray to brownish with a black stripe down the back, but selective breeding in captivity has brought out other color variations, including albinos. In captivity, they can live as long as 15 years, although 8 to 12 years is more usual. One of the most distinguishing features of sugar gliders is a thin membrane, called a patagium, that stretches between their front and rear legs, much like the more familiar flying squirrels of North America. This is what allows them to glide from tree to tree. When they glide, the skin spreads out, making sugar gliders look like furry kites! When the sugar glider is sitting, the patagium looks like ruffled furry skin, shaped somewhat like the edge of lasagna noodles. Their tail is not prehensile, unlike their more familiar American opossum cousins. That means that sugar gliders cannot grasp, grip and hang from their tails. Instead, the tail is used as a balancing and stabilizing tool, especially while gliding. Sugar gliders are nocturnal, which means they are active at night.

They have very large (relative to their size) eyes, which help them see at night. They also have large ears, an obvious benefit to an animal who is both preyed-upon and a predator. Those big ears allow them to hear even the smallest sound. Sugar gliders have fixed teeth, incisors, molars, and premolars. You should not trim your sugar glider’s teeth. Unlike some species, such as guinea pigs, their teeth do not continue to grow once mature. If a tooth falls out, it is not replaced. Wild gliders chew on branches and in the process, clean their teeth. Gliders in cages will also chew on branches. Sugar gliders have 5 toes on their front feet.

Each toe ends with a very sharp claw that helps them land when they glide. Those claws also make gliders very agile climbers. Their hind feet also have 5 toes, but one of them is an enlarged, clawless opposable toe. An opposable toe means that they can use that toe to grip things, much as humans' opposable thumbs allow us to do the same. Why are they called "sugar gliders"? In the wild, sugar gliders eat, as part of their diet, manna (a crusty sugar left where sap flowed from a tree trunk or branch) and honeydew (an excess sugar produced by sap-sucking insects). In captivity, sugar gliders have a fondness for sweet foods. They will eat too many sweets if allowed, so sweet foods must be rationed. In the wild, sugar gliders nest in holes of trees in colonies of 7 to 15 members and have been observed gliding as far as 300 feet! The ability to glide is one of the most amazing features of sugar gliders, and one of the things that makes them such special pets. Teaching your sugar glider to glide to you is very rewarding! Sugar gliders are social animals, which means they live in groups. They get along with and love the company other sugar gliders, and many sugar glider owners choose to have more than one glider.

It is their social nature that allows them to develop strong bonds with their human owners. But it is also that social nature that creates their need for attention from their owners. Sugar gliders are not the kind of pet that can be left for long periods of time without any attention from their owners. The more time you spend with your sugar glider, the more he will become bonded with you. Many sugar glider owners bond with their new gliders by carrying them around in a bonding pouch for several hours a day while the glider sleeps. Sugar gliders are sometimes called "pocket pets" because they will often curl up in your pocket and go to sleep! Diet and housing are perhaps the two most important factors in deciding whether a sugar glider is the right pet for you. Sugar gliders require a varied diet consisting of a protein source (meat, insects, etc.), a fruit and/or vegetable source, and a supplement of calcium. There are commercial sugar glider dry and soft-pellet foods available, but it is not recommended that you feed your sugar glider a diet consisting solely of these commercial foods.


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