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Extinction Countdown


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Australians team up to help a rare marsupial after a cyclone devastates its habitat

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Whenever an endangered species lives in just one location, it is at increased risk of being wiped out by a single disease, fire or catastrophic weather event.

One such species, the endangered mahogany glider (Petaurus gracilis), is lucky that it wasn’t washed away when Cyclone Yasi hit its sole habitat in northern Queensland, Australia, on February 3. The rare possum, which was lost to science for more than 100 years before its rediscovery in 1989, exists in just one small stretch of land approximately 100 km long.

The cyclone knocked down many trees in the area, destroying much of the canopy cover that the gliders depend upon for their habitat, food and protection. Although it is unknown how many animals might also have been killed by the storm, volunteers now working with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Department have been building nest boxes to give the possums a better shot at survival.

According to a report from the Daily Mercury, the volunteers are making two types of boxes, one using insulated PVC cylinders, the other timber lined with foil. Several local businesses donated the required materials. The boxes will be placed in the areas where the cyclone did the most damage to the gliders’ habitat.

Meanwhile, the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland is providing wildlife rangers with surveillance cameras, flashlights and food to help keep the gliders safe and fed.

“At present the mahogany gliders are relying on insects and sap to feed on,” Daryl Dickson, a member of Wildlife Queensland, reported on the group’s Web site. “The gliders seen at feeding stations are looking in good condition at this stage—the monitoring of these animals is going to be essential in the coming months as they will give us indication of just how stressed they are becoming and if the insect and sap food resource is enough to keep them alive.”

The mahogany glider is a strikingly unusual species even for Australia. It’s a marsupial that uses a mahogany-colored membrane along its legs to glide between trees. Females are almost double the size of males, and the species is completely silent, with no vocalization ability. They normally subsist upon tree sap and nectar.

Most of the mahogany glider’s habitat was destroyed for production of crops such as sugarcane and bananas. Other than cyclones, farming and predators remain the biggest threats to their survival. In fact, one month after their rediscovery in 1989, one of the animal’s major habitats was cleared for banana and pineapple plantations. It took two years to find another population in the wild, and the species is now protected under Australian law.

Photo via Wikipedia





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  1. 1. oldfartfox 6:01 pm 03/3/2011

    The Mahogany Glider is a very fortunate animal, indeed. It’s cute. Unfortunately, intensity of public support to save any particular endangered animal is all too often tied to its cuteness factor. Would th Australian populace put forth the effort for an ugly creature with disgusting habits?

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