It’s safe to say that 2020 has been an absolutely bruising year from the start, and nowhere has this been more true than in Australia, where massive bushfires killed or displaced some 3 billion animals in one of the most vicious wildlife disasters in modern history.
However, scientists in Australia have identified two new mammals in a country known for its unique fauna – and both are cousin species of the greater glider, a marsupial that is known for gliding from tree to tree and is known for its expressive eyes, large ears, and long furry tails.
While the glider had previously been classified as a single species, a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports has found that it was actually three distinct species that also live in northern and central Australia, far beyond the southern parts of the country where the marsupial was known to dwell.
“Australia’s biodiversity just got a lot richer,” Prof. Andrew Krockenberger of James Cook University told the Sydney Morning Herald. “It’s not every day that new mammals are confirmed, let alone two new mammals.”
The southern glider had long been known to be a unique creature with many variations among individual creatures, with broad differences in size, color, and physiology. And while scientists suspected that the glider may have been several species, their diversity was long believed to be subspecies rather than entirely different species.
However, DNA sequencing led the researchers to conclude that the gliders were, indeed, three separate species.
The southern glider is known to seek slumber in hollowed-out trees in forests along the Great Dividing Range between New South Wales and Victoria during the day. Like koalas, it subsists on the leaves of eucalyptus trees, and flies as high as 330 feet in the air during the night when it searches for its food.
While the possum-sized glider was once common, habitat loss and fragmentation has led to a precipitous drop in their numbers – a matter only made worse by logging, drought, bushfires, and global warming, according to Victoria’s environmental agency. The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List notes that the creatures are vulnerable, especially due to their dependence on mature trees.
However, conservationists will now have to divide their concern among three separate species rather than one.
The newly-discovered species in the north dwells in the eucalyptus forests between Mackay and Cairns in Queensland and is the smallest glider, only growing up to roughly a foot long – about the size of the little ringtail possum and about half the size of the southern glider.
The newfound central species’ habitat lies in southern Queensland up to Mackay and is in between the two others in size.
“It’s really exciting to find this biodiversity under our noses, and gliders are such a charismatic animal as well,” said ecologist Kara Youngentob of the Australian National University.
“But 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,” she added.
The discovery further underscores the dramatically unique nature of creatures in Australia, an island continent where 87 percent of wildlife is endemic to the country, meaning it can only be found on Australia. This includes such exceptional southern corroboree frog, mountain pygmy-possum, kangaroos, koalas, wallabies, wombats, potoroos, bandicoots, echidnas, and other species.
The country also has the highest rate of species loss of any region in the world – a situation that scientists hope can be changed with more accurate taxonomic classification.
“A lack of knowledge about the genetic structure of species across their range can result in an inability to properly manage and protect species from extinction,” the study noted.
“This is especially true in the wake of a natural disaster, when wildlife management decisions need to be made quickly and under challenging circumstances.”
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