Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
sdzglibrarybanner San Diego Zoo Global Library

Sugar Glider (Petaurus breviceps) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

Mainly nocturnal

(Jackson 2015b; Nowak 2018a)

  • Rest during daytime hours in nest in tree hollow (Nowak 2018a)
    • Daytime predators avoided (McKay 1989)
  • Forage for about 60% of the night, about 8 hours (Jackson 2015b; Nowack et al. 2015)
  • May forage during the day if need more food (Jackson 2015a)

Daily torpor

Nests

Benefits

(Jackson 2015b, except as noted)

  • Insulation from heat and cold
  • Shelter from wind and rain (Lindenmayer 2002)
  • Resting space
  • Protection from predators
  • Site for social activities (grooming, caring for young)

Nest sites

  • Typically nest in hollow cavities of tree trunks or branches (Suckling 1984; Jackson 2015b)
    • Prefer hollows 6-40 m (20-130 ft) from the ground
  • Use several nest sites in home range at one time (Suckling 1984)
    • May use multiple sites each night
  • Alternate nest types

Nest construction

  • Bite off vegetation and carry nest material in tail, back to tree hollow (Fleay 1947; Lindenmayer 2002; Nowak 2018a)
    • Mainly leaves; sometimes bark
    • Shred nesting materials and weave into nest

Movements and Dispersal

Home range

  • Home range size: typically 0.5 to 4.7 ha (0.002 to 0.018 mi2) (Jackson 2015a)
    • Some individuals exhibit very large home ranges—up to 14 ha (0.054 mi2) (Quin et al. 1992)
  • Shape is elliptical (Quin 1995) or a long, narrow strip (when along roads or narrow forest corridors) (Lindenmayer 2002)
  • Adults patrol edges of territory (Jackson 2015b)

Dispersal

  • Young generally disperse by 10 to 12 months (Suckling 1984; Quin 1995)
    • Aggressive behavior by adults initiates dispersal (Suckling 1984)
  • Capable of crossing open habitat with no trees (Suckling 1984)
  • Males typically disperse (Suckling 1984; Sadler and Ward 1999; Malekian et al. 2015; Nowak 2018a)
  • Females may remain with natal group (Suckling 1984; Malekian et al. 2015; Nowak 2018a)
  • Juveniles may form a new group (Jackson 2015b; Jackson 2015a)
    • May not be able to establish a territory (Suckling 2008)
      • Mortality is high

Social Behavior

Most social interaction occurs inside nest

(Jackson 2015a)

  • All species of Petaurus highly social (Nowak 2018a)
    • Few sugar gliders nest singly (Suckling 1984)
  • Sugar gliders nest in tree hollows lined with leaves (Jackson 2015a)
    • Nest has a strong odor (Smith 1973)
  • Commonly nest in groups of 2 to 7 adults and their young (Suckling 1984)
    • Up to 10 to 12 individuals maximum (Suckling 1984)
    • Commonly 0 to 1 adult males and 2 to 3 adult females (Quin 1995)
    • Adult females typically related (kin) (Malekian et al. 2015)
  • Groups are territorial and do not inter-mix (Nowak 2018a)
  • Group composition fairly stable (Körtner and Geiser 2000)
    • If an established group member dies, a new group member is recruited (Henry and Suckling 1984; Suckling 2008)
    • Male tenure of a group of females averages 2 years (Sadler and Ward 1999)

Communication

Vocalizations

  • Alarm call
    • Shrill “yap” (Flannery 1995; Jackson 2015a)
      • Similar to high-pitched barking of a small dog (Smith 1973)
  • Threat call
    • High-pitched vocalization (Smith 1973)
    • Sometimes heard during fights (Jackson 2015a)
  • Other vocalizations (Fleay 1947; Flannery 1995, except as noted)
    • Gurgling chatter (Jackson 2015a)
      • Made when handled or disturbed in the nest
    • Buzzing
    • Droning
    • Hissing
    • Clicking
    • Grating

Olfactory communication

  • Complex chemical communication system (Schultze-Westrum 1969; Nowak 2018a)
  • Groups have distinct scents that help group members recognize one another (Schultze-Westrum 1969)
    • Territory boundaries marked passively, as individuals move through trees
  • Each individual in a group has a unique scent (Schultze-Westrum 1969; Nowak 2018a)
    • Identifies that individual to other group members
    • Communicates dominance rank
  • Dominant male marks members of his group with his scent (Schultze-Westrum 1969; Nowak 2018a)
    • Rubs scent gland excretions onto female’s fur
    • Also spreads scent through social grooming (licking)
  • Body parts involved in scent production (Schultze-Westrum 1969)
    • Both sexes
      • Salivary glands
      • Urogenital and anal glands
      • Inner eye region
      • Region behind ears
    • Breeding females
      • Glands in inner skin of pouch
    • Adult males
      • Glands on top of head and chest

Agonistic Behavior and Defense

Aggression

  • Little to no aggression among group members (Schultze-Westrum 1969)
    • Dominance communicated through scent (Schultze-Westrum 1969)
      • See “Olfactory communication,” above
    • May compete for food or access to mates in managed care (Ride 1970)
  • Protective of territory and group members (Ride 1970)
    • Very aggressive towards non-group members (Fleay 1947)
      • Males chase away and/or kill intruders near nest (Fleay 1947; Sadler and Ward 1999)
    • Defend food resources from larger animals (Suckling 2008)

Territorial Behavior

Territorial

  • Territory maintained by 1 or 2 dominant adult males in a group (Schultze-Westrum 1969)
    • Passively mark territory with scent
      • See “Olfactory communication,” above
    • Patrol territory boundaries
    • Chase off intruders

Ecological Role

Plant reproduction

  • Pollinate native plants (e.g., Goldingay et al. 1991)

Predator of insects

  • Help to control insect populations (Smith 1982)

Alteration of Tasmanian food webs

(Campbell et al. 2018)

  • Introduced to Tasmania in 1835 (Gunn 1851; Lindenmayer 2002; Campbell et al. 2018)
  • Prey heavily on endemic tree hollow-dwelling birds that native Tasmanian predators cannot prey on (Stojanovic et al. 2014; Heinsohn et al. 2015; Stojanovic et al. 2017)
  • Also see “Bird predation in Tasmania” in Interspecies Interactions

Interspecies Interactions

Competition with other gliders

  • Habitat and diet generalist: can live in same habitat used by larger, competitively superior species of lesser gliders (Jackson 2015b)
    • Competition avoided by species using different habitat niches (Lindenmayer 1997; Jackson 2000a)
    • Sugar glider can use lower-quality habitat not used by competing species (Jackson 2000a)
  • In some locations, may be outcompeted by other gliders (e.g., Leadbeater’s Possum) (Jackson 2015b)
    • Also see Jackson (2000a)

Use of tree hollows

  • May compete for tree hollows with invasive species (e.g., European honeybee, Common Myna) (Council 2010)
  • May temporarily use nests of ringtail possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus) (Fleay 1947)

Bird predation in Tasmania

Nest usage by other animals

  • Abandoned sugar glider nests used by yellow-bellied sheathtail bat (Saccolaimus flaviventris) (Lindenmayer 2002)

Relationship with humans

  • Popular pet in the United States and Japan (Dierenfeld and Whitehouse-Tedd 2018)
    • Also Canada and Europe (Jackson 2003)
    • Unclear where first individuals in pet trade originated from—possibly New Guinea or illegally exported from Australia (Lindenmayer 2002)
      • As a native species of Australia, legally protected; can only be exported by permit

Locomotion

Walking

  • Walk at low speed (McKay 1989)

Running

  • Bounding gait at higher speed (McKay 1989)

Gliding

  • Benefits (Johnson and Hemsley 2008)
    • More efficient form of movement than running, climbing, or jumping
    • Move quickly from tree to tree
    • Stay clean and dry
    • Reduced risk of predation
    • Gliding membrane used for warmth during rest
  • Abilities
    • Typically glide a distance of about 20 m (70 ft) (Jackson 2000b; Jackson 2015b)
      • Maximum glide distance needs confirmation
        • Jackson (2000b): 30 m (100 ft)
        • Fleay (1947) suggests farther
    • Can make “bank turns” (90° or less) and U-turns (Jackson 2015a)
  • Preferred habitat for gliding
  • Phases
    • Preparation and launch (Jackson 2015b)
      • Climb towards end of branch
      • Move body side to side and head up and down
        • Likely to guide direction and distance to landing point
      • Crouch with head low
      • Raise tail
      • Spring into air by pushing off using hindlimbs
    • Gliding (Jackson 2000b; Bishop 2007; Jackson 2015b)
      • Spread limbs out at right angles to body
      • Move forefeet slightly upward
      • Move limbs to change tension on gliding membrane
        • Change direction or angle of descent
        • Steer around obstacles to landing tree
        • Tail likely creates drag, rather than acting as a rudder
    • Landing and braking (Jackson 2015b, and as noted)
      • Stop by moving all limbs down and forward
        • Creates maximum air resistance
          • Loose skin acts as a “parachute”
      • End of glide may include an “upward swoop” (Lindenmayer 2002; Bishop 2007)
        • Slows momentum, especially on long-distance glides
      • Land nearly parallel with tree trunk (lower impact)
        • Forefeet grasp tree first
        • Body rotates downward
        • Hindfeet grasp tree second
    • Video of gliding phases

Swimming

  • Poor swimmers (Johnson 2011)

A Taste for Something Sweet

Sugar glider on flower, Northern Territory

Sugar gliders are thought to be important pollinators of native Australian flowering plants.

Image credit: © Colin Trainor. CC BY-NC 4.0; some rights reserved.

Image location: Northern Territory, Australia

SDZG Library Links