Skip to main content
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