Care of Sugar Gliders
The sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps) is native to northern and eastern Australia, New Guinea, and surrounding islands. They inhabit woodlands and forests, are arboreal and largely nocturnal. They shelter by day in leaf-lined nests inside of tree hollows.
Sugar gliders resemble flying squirrels in form, having a large gliding membrane. They are able to glide up to 50 meters, and have been observed to leap at and catch insects in flight. Gliders are mainly insectivorous, feeding on insects, larvae, arachnids, and small vertebrates for the most of the year; sap, blossoms, and nectar only during the wet season (winter).
They are social and produce a variety of sounds. Wild groups nest in colonies of up to seven adult males, females, and their young. During winter, gliders will huddle together to conserve energy and may simultaneously enter a daily torpor during cold weather when food is scarce. Groups are exclusive and territorial: newly introduced individuals may be attacked by established members.
Sugar gliders are polygamous. One or two dominant, older males are usually responsible for most of the territorial maintenance as well as fathering of the young. A complex system of chemical communication exists based upon the scents produced by glands on the back of the head, chest, and genitalia. Each individual has its own characteristic scent. The dominant male actively marks other members of the group with his scent. Gliders will urine-mark their territory.
The natural breeding season for wild sugar gliders in Australia is June to November. Females are polyestrous, cycling every 29 days. A female may produce a second litter during the breeding season if the first is lost. However in tropical habitats and in captivity, there seems to be no definite breeding season. The exportation of sugar gliders has been banned in Australia since 1959.
Sugar gliders breed readily in captivity and they gained popularity in the US in the late ’90s. Due to their social nature, captive gliders should be kept in groups of two or more. They are most active in the evenings and early mornings, and should get most of their social interaction during this period. Solitary gliders will require socialization periods of at least two hours a day. They will bond readily with their owners, who often carry them around in fleece glider-pouches, or close to the body, under clothing. Captive-bred joeys adopted between 7-12 weeks “out-of-pouch” are the easiest to socialize. Gliders make loud screeching noises (“crabbing”) when they frightened or excited. They also “bark” or quietly “chatter” for attention.
Scent glands are involved in group recognition and communication among gliders. Males have frontal and sternal scent glands. Females have scent glands in their pouch. Both have paracloacal glands, which produce a white oily secretion when frightened.
The tail is weakly prehensile (able to grasp): gliders collect leaves by hanging from the hind feet, grabbing leaves with the front feet and passing them to the tail, which can coil around and grasp leaves to be used for nest building. The tail also acts as a rudder during gliding.
A gliding membrane (patagium) extends from the forefoot to the ankle. There are five digits on each foot. All contain a sharp claw except the first digit (hallux) on each hind foot, which is opposable. Digits two and three on the hind foot are identical in length and partially fused (syndactylous) to form a grooming “comb.”
Female sugar gliders have a well-developed, mid-abdominal pouch which contains four teats. The adrenal glands of females are twice the size of male adrenals on the basis of weight.
The cloaca is the common opening for the rectum, urinary, and genital ducts. The cloacal temperature averages 32°C (89.6°F), which is lower than the actual core body temperature.
Typical marsupials possess marsupial bones (ossa marsupialla) which articulate which the pelvis and serve as an attachment for abdominal musculature. These are absent in the sugar glider.
The teeth are brachydont (do not grow throughout life). The dental formula is: 3/2, 1/0, 3/3, 4/4 = 40. The incisors are specialized for gouging the bark of trees. Sugar gliders possess an enlarged cecum that may assist in digesting gum from acacia trees.
Female sugar gliders have two uteri and two long, thin lateral vaginae that open into a single cul-de-sac divided by a septum. When engorged the bifid clitoris may be visible, protruding from the cloaca.
Testes of male are permanently descended in the pendulous, pre-penile scrotum. The penis is bifid (forked). The prostate and cowpers glands are large.
Adult weight: 80-160 gm; females smaller than males
Adult body length: about 12.7 cm (5 in)
Total length, including tail: about 28 cm (11 in)
Longevity: 12-14 years in captivity
Body temp: average 32°C (89.6°F)
Heart rate: 200-300 beats/min
Respiratory rate: 16-40 breaths/min
Sexual maturity: female at 8-12 mo; male 12-14 mo; capable of reproducing until over 10 yrs old
Estrous cycle: 29 days (seasonally polyestrous); they can breed all year in captivity
Mating: usually occurs in the evening
Gestation: 16 days, fetus then migrated to pouch
Litter size: one (19%) or two (89%)
Litters/yr: 1-2 in the wild; up to 4 litters/yr in captivity (not recommended)
A sugar glider joey weighs only 0.19 gm and is 5 mm long at birth. It crawls to pouch (marsupium), where it stays attached to the nipple for 40 days. It first releases the nipple at 40 days, but stays inside until 70 days, when it first emerges. From 70 days on, the joey leaves the pouch for more and more time. Weaning occurs at 110-120 days of age, and joeys are independent by 17 weeks.
Marsupial metabolism is thought to be about two thirds of placental (eutherian) mammals and the heart rate is usually about one-half the rate that is seen in eutherians of similar size. During periods of cold or food scarcity sugar gliders conserve energy by going into a torpor (period of low metabolic rate) for periods of up to 16 hours per day.
Sugar gliders need as large an enclosure as possible to allow space to climb, run, jump, and glide. A large, tall, aviary-type wire cage is ideal. Wire spacing should be no more than 2.5×1.3 cm (1×0.5 in). Zinc-containing wire is potentially toxic if it is consumed. A hide-box or sleeping pouch should be placed high up in the cage. Gliders need non-toxic tree branches (e.g., manzanita, cholla), perches, and shelves to climb on. To provide additional enrichment place bird toys, swings, and a solid running wheel (w/out rungs, to avoid injury) at elevated positions within the cage.
Sugar gliders should be housed as pairs or groups due to their social nature. Keeping a single glider is not recommended as clinical depression may result. Placing the glider cage in a high-traffic area such as the family room will provide additional socialization.
Sugar gliders can tolerate environmental temperatures of 18.3-32.2°C (65-90°F) however the ideal range is 24-27°C (75-80°F). Do not place them in drafty areas, in direct sunlight, or where temperatures fluctuate widely. Sugar gliders that are too cold will become torpid and difficult to rouse. Most collections will need some form of supplemental heat (infrared heat lamp, ceramic heat emitter) in order to prevent cold-stress.
Cage substrate should be hardwood shavings, recycled paper, corn cob, or shredded paper. Avoid pine and cedar shavings. The cage, nest box, and bedding should be kept very clean in order to avoid fur-pulling and self-mutilation. Do not allow frayed fabric, string, rope, or towels to be placed in the cage: gliders occasionally get tangled in these.
The natural diet of sugar gliders includes insects, spiders, worms, small mammals, eggs, nestling birds, tree sap, nectar, and blossoms. In spite of published advice to the contrary, wild sugar gliders do not rely heavily on fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains or seeds. Pet gliders will readily accept these items, however, to the exclusion of healthy foods.
Sugar gliders are largely insectivorous. Their captive diet should include greater than 50% protein (insects, hardboiled egg with shell, newborn mice, lean meat, high quality cat food, monkey chow), and 50% fruit sugars and gums (fresh nectar, honey, acacia gum, gum Arabic, commercial lory diet, Glideraide).
A popular alternative to the above approach is to feed equal parts of a homemade diet mixture (Leadbeater’s mixture) and a commercial insectivore/carnivore diet (see below).
In either case, small amounts of various fresh fruits, vegetables, baby food, dairy products and other items are occasionally offered as treats. All food should be offered fresh in the evening. A small amount of vitamin/mineral powder (i.e., Repcal, Herptivite) should be applied to any fruit or insects given. Provide additional calcium during breeding and lactation.
Provide fresh food and water daily. Place food bowls and water/nectar sippers high in the cage, not on the cage floor.
It is recommended to offer about 25% of the sugar glider’s body weight in food on a daily basis. Dietary recommendations vary, but here are some suggestions:
1. Fruit: Oranges, watermelon, paw paw, pears, kiwifruit, apricots, berries, bananas, apples, mangos, grapes, melons, figs. Invertebrates: Mealworms, grasshoppers, moths, fly pupae, crickets.
Blossoms and branches: Eucalyptus, Banksia, Leptospermum, Grevillea, Acacia, Melaleuca, Callistemum, Hakea.
Supplements: nectar mix, vitamins, minerals
2. Items (mixed into a slurry):
·Chopped, mixed fruit 40% 12.0g
·Cooked, chopped vegetables 8% 2.5g
·Peach or apricot nectar 34% 10.0g
·Ground, dry, low-iron bird diet 18% 5.5g
3. 50% Leadbeater’s mixture (see below) 50% Insectivore/carnivore diet (ie, Mazuri Brand, Purina Mills, St. Louis, MO; Reliable Protein Products, Palm Desert, CA; ZuPreem, Mission, KS)
Leadbeater’s mixture (can be used as 50% of dietary intake- see above):
150 ml warm water
150 ml honey
1 hard-boiled with shell on
25 gm high protein baby cereal
1 tsp vitamin/mineral supplement
Mix warm water and honey. In a separate container, blend egg until homogenized; gradually add honey/water, then vitamin/mineral powder, then baby cereal, blending after each addition until smooth. Keep refrigerated or frozen until served.
Other nutritional products:
Nekton-Lori, NektonUSA, Inc., St. Petersburg, FL
Avico Glideraide, Cuttlebone Plus, San Marcos, CA
Gum Arabic #76-3503, Country Kitchen SweetArt, Fort Wayne, IN
Rep-Cal (phosphorus free calcium with Vit. D powder), and
Herptivite (multivitamin, multimineral supplement), RepCal Research Labs, Los Gatos, CA 800-406-6446, www.repcal.com
Sugar Glider and Insectivore diets
Brisky Sugar Glider Diet, Brisky Pet Products, Franklinville, NY
Mazuri Insectivore Diet-5MK8, Mazuri,
Insectivore-Fare, Reliable Protein Products, Palm Desert, CA
Sugar gliders can be scruffed or held around the thorax, wedging the thumb between the sternum and chin to avoid being bitten. A towel can be used to assist in capture, and the examination can be accomplished in part with the glider in the towel. A cursory examination may be all that is possible with an awake animal. A bivalve nasal speculum will allow for a better oral exam (under sedation). Heart and lung sounds will often be hampered by constant “crabbing” noises when awake. For a thorough physical examination, isoflurane anesthesia is usually needed.
Most problems seen in sugar gliders are diet and care related. An annual checkup and examination of stool for parasites is recommended. Close examination of the oral cavity and teeth under anesthesia is also recommended. The exam provides an opportunity to review the diet and care (husbandry). Nails typically need constant trimming. Additional tests such as CBC, chemistry, and radiographs may be indicated in certain disease states and even in health can provide a good base-line to compare against in times of illness.