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Sugar Glider (Petaurus breviceps) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomy and Nomenclature


  • Petaurus breviceps may be composed of more than one species (Jackson 2015a; Salas et al. 2016)
    • Several New Guinea populations show distinctive features (Nowak 2018a)
  • Genetically distinct populations
    • D'Entrecasteaux Island of New Guinea (Malekian et al. 2010)
      • May be a distinct species (Salas et al. 2016)


  • Genus: Petaurus
    • Means “rope dancer” (Lindenmayer 2002)
  • Species: P. breviceps
    • Means “short headed” (Flannery 1995)


  • No recent synonyms (Suckling 2008)
  • Older synonyms (Smith 1973; Flannery 1995)
    • Petaurus (Belideus) ariel
    • Petaurus (Belideus) kohlsi
    • Petaurus (Belideus) notatus
    • Petaurus breviceps papuanus
      • Later elevated to species level (see below)
    • Petaurus (Petaurella) papuanus tafa
    • Petaurus (Petaurella) papuanus flavidus

Common names

  • Lesser flying phalanger, lesser flying squirrel, lesser glider, short-headed flying phalanger, sugar squirrel, Tasmanian sugar glider (Tasmania) (English) (Jackson 2015a)
    • “Sugar glider” or “sugar squirrel”
      • Named for feeding preference for sweet foods (Fleay 1947; Henry and Suckling 1984)
  • Possum à sucre (French) (Jackson 2015a)
  • Kurzkopf-Gleithörnchenbeutler (German) (Jackson 2015a)
  • Falangero planeador del azúcar (Spanish) (Jackson 2015a)

Other colloquial or local names

  • Indigenous names used on Tiwi Islands (near Darwin, northern Australia) (Suckling 2008)
    • Rigingini (males)
    • Riginga (females)
  • Indigenous names in New Guinea (Flannery 1995)
    • Dononi
    • Mayfagam
    • Silek
    • Webrim
    • Panuk naway
    • Unundawe

Evolutionary History

Fossil history and evolutionary relationships

  • Limited fossil record for lesser gliders (Jackson 2015b)
  • Oldest specimens of Petauridae from the Oligocene, about 20 to 30 mya (Jackson 2015b)
    • Unknown if able to glide
      • First gliding possums and gliders may have emerged during the Pliocene, about 5 mya
  • Genus Petaurus emerged late Oligocene to early Miocene, about 18 to 24 mya (Malekian et al. 2010)

Closest living (extant) relatives

  • Biak glider (Petaurus biacensis) (Lindenmayer 2002)
  • Not closely related to other “gliding mammals”; similar adaptations for locomotion result from convergent evolution (Jackson 2015b)
    • Feather-tailed gliders (Order Diprotondontia, Family Acrobatidae)
    • Greater glider (Order Diprotondontia, Family Pseudocheiridae)
    • Flying squirrel (Order Rodentia, Family Sciuridae)
    • Anomalures (Order Rodentia, Family Anomaluridae)
    • Colugos (Order Dermoptera, Family Cynocephalidae)

Cultural History


  • 1803
    • First recorded observations of a sugar glider by Europeans (Jackson 2012)
      • Other lesser gliders described in the 1780s
  • 1835
    • Sugar gliders introduced to Tasmania (Gunn 1851; Lindenmayer 2002; Campbell et al. 2018)
      • Followed European settlement of Port Phillip in southern Victoria

Culture and folklore

  • Significance in Australian Aboriginal and New Guinea cultures
    • Food source (Tindale [1925] as cited by Smith [1973])
    • Fur used to decorate armlets and make string (Tindale [1925] as cited by Smith [1973])
    • Regarded with suspicion in some regions of New Guinea (Flannery 1995)
      • Associated with sorcery and secrecy
    • Also see Kerle (2001), Chapter 2; Lindenmayer (2002), p. 100
      • General discussion of gliders/possums, Aboriginal life and culture, and role in European settlement
  • Early colonial Australia
    • Commonly kept as pets (Lindenmayer 2002)


  • Selected non-fiction
    • Gliding Mammals of the World by Stephen Jackson (2012)
    • Gliders of Australia by David Lindenmayer (2002)
    • Gliders of the Gum Trees: The Most Beautiful and Enchanting Australian Marsupials by David Fleay (1947)



  • Paintings
    • Belideus ariel by John Gould (1863) (Gould and Dixon 1975)
    • Belideus breviceps by John Gould (1863) (Gould and Dixon 1975)
    • Belideus notatus by John Gould (1863) (Gould and Dixon 1975)
    • Lesser Flying Phalanger by Richard Lydekker (1896) (Lydekker 1896)
    • Sugar Glider by Neville W. Cayley (1941) (Troughton 1966)
    • Various illustrations by David Fleay and M. Glover Fleay in Gliders of the Gum Trees (1947)
    • Sugar Glider by Peter Schouten (2012) (Jackson 2012)


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia (Linnaeus, 1758) — mammals

Order: Diprotodontia (Owen, 1877) — koala, wombats, possums and gliders, kangaroos, wallabies

Family: Petauridae (Bonaparte, 1832 sensu Baverstock, 1984) — lesser gliders, striped possum, Leadbeater’s possum

Genus: Petaurus (Shaw, 1791) — lesser gliders

Species: Petaurus breviceps* (Waterhouse, 1838) — sugar glider

P. b. breviceps (Waterhouse, 1838)
P. b. ariel (Gould, 1842)
P. b. longicaudatus
P. b. papuanus (Thomas, 1888)

Source: Jackson and Groves (2015)

*Taxonomic note: Some authors suggest that this species may be several species (e.g., Jackson 2015a; Salas et al. 2016). Additional research is needed.

Tree Dwellers

John Gould painting of two sugar gliders

An 1863 illustration by John Gould of two sugar gliders.

Gould depicts a sugar glider nesting in a eucalyptus tree hollow. The white tail tip of the other glider is common in populations in southern Victoria.

"Belideus notatus Stripe-tailed Belideus"; Plate 26 in John Gould's The Mammals of Australia (1863).

Image credit: Made available by Biodiversity Heritage Library (contributed to BHL by Smithsonian Libraries). Public domain.

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