Genomic analysis of one of Australia’s favorite marsupials revealed the animal is in fact three separate species.

Speculations concerning the existence of more than one species of greater glider have ensnared scientists in a validation conundrum for quite a while, but this new discovery following the analysis of the genetic make-up of the greater glider has put an end to those. 

the greater glider
The greater glider, Petauroides volans [Image: Steven Kuiter via ANU]
The diet of greater gliders is exclusive to eucalyptus leaves. The possum-sized marsupial mammals are also bigger than the widely known sugar gliders, and can leap from tree to tree, gliding up to 100 meters in the process. 

Greater gliders dwell in forests along the Great Dividing Range, where their habitat extends from northern Queensland to southern Victoria. So, taking note of this magnitude of demographic distribution and dissimilarities in size and physiology among the species, the team reckoned there would be more than one kind of animal. However, DNA evidence was exiguous to substantiate what they speculated.

But that changed when they introduced a gene sequencing tool called Diversity Arrays Technology(DArT).

“Australia’s biodiversity just got a lot richer. It’s not every day that new mammals are confirmed, let alone two new mammals,” says Professor Andrew Krockenberger of James Cook University (JCU) in a news release

“Differences in size and physiology gave us hints that the one accepted species was actually three. For the first time, we were able to use Diversity Arrays (DArT) sequencing to provide genetic support for multiple species.” 

Using DArT sequencing, the team analyzed tissue samples of greater gliders which they obtained from multiple regions across Australia, and the results fortified their conjecture: they found the evidence of being three separate species which were identified by the way of genetic identifiers called operational taxonomic units (OTUs).

According to the paper, they represent three widely diverse populations along the Australian east coast: Petauroides volans (in the southern regions), Petauroides armillatus (central), and Petauroides minor (along the north).

“This year Australia experienced a bushfire season of unprecedented severity, resulting in widespread habitat loss and mortality. As a result, there’s been an increased focus on understanding genetic diversity and structure of species to protect resilience in the face of climate change,” explains Kara Youngentob, a co-author from Australian National University.

“The division of the greater glider into multiple species reduces the previous widespread distribution of the original species, further increasing conservation concern for that animal and highlighting the lack of information about the other greater glider species.”

The findings are conducive to effective assessment of conservation status of each species. They will also help us decide what management efforts are to be taken up to ensure protection of these beautiful creatures. 

The study has been published in Scientific Reports.