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Scientists use ear tissue to learn more about mahogany gliders

15/October/2021
Endangered species: This mahogany glider, found at Bambaroo, south of Ingham, is part of a catch and release program to learn more about the species' genetic health and the best conservation actions for its recovery. PHOTO CREDIT: @furrygliders

Tiny pieces of ear tissue could be the key to saving the endangered mahogany glider.

 

Scientists are catching and releasing gliders in Tropical Far North Queensland, so they can learn more about the species, its genetic health, and the best conservation actions for recovery.

 

A team from James Cook University is working with Terrain NRM to capture footage of the elusive gliders on monitoring cameras and to also catch them in wildlife-friendly traps during night field trips in the woodland between Tully and Townsville.

 

Researcher Eryn Chang said a recent trip to a small patch of woodland north of Townsville had been surprisingly successful.

 

“We caught six mahogany gliders in one night. That hasn’t happened before in my work. Some nights we record nothing, or we see sugar or squirrel gliders and no mahoganies. It’s a slow process, to build up data, but one that’s important for this species.”

 

Gliders are weighed and measured before a tiny sample of ear tissue is collected for genetic testing.

 

“This gives us the fine details of each individual so we can determine genetic diversity. With enough samples, we can also determine the size of the population, whether populations are connected, and whether the species is genetically healthy.”

 

Mahogany gliders are only found in North Queensland. The last population estimate, of between 1500 and 2000, was in 2010 – the year before Tropical Cyclone Yasi tore through critical glider habitat in the Tully and Cardwell area.

 

“It’s now critical that we understand how well our gliders are recovering from that devastating blow, and that there are still enough habitat connections in the landscape to keep the population healthy,” Terrain NRM’s Andrew Dennis said.

 

Terrain is working with scientists as part of a broader project that also includes tree-planting on private land and controlled burns in glider habitat – to keep woodland thickening from reducing glider movements in the little habitat they have left. The ‘Biodiversity Hot Spots – Tackling Woodland Threats’ project is supported by Terrain NRM through the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.

 

Dr Dennis said new population figures were an important part of the initiative. 

 

“We need to check that the gliders still occur across their full former range, and then, using James Cook University’s sophisticated genetic techniques, check that gliders are moving from one place to another to keep their populations viable,” he said.

 

“Understanding this will help us to determine the best areas in which to replant trees, to create corridors connecting different parts of their habitat.”

 

James Cook University Tropical Biologist Dr Conrad Hoskin said species distribution modelling had been used to work out where to install the cameras and night-time traps.

 

“At first these gliders proved remarkably hard to catch on camera or to cage trap, but we are rolling along well now,’’ he said. “One aim is to compare populations in little fragments of habitat with those in bigger areas, to determine the importance of connectivity. We also want to determine this species’ southern and northern limits.” 

 

“We’ve used a database with records since the 1980s, much of it collated by Terrain NRM and the Mahogany Glider Recovery Team. We’ve also used the work of previous researchers. For a species like the mahogany glider, it’s super important that we all work together. This species isn’t just packaged up in national parks. Its future also depends on what happens on private land.”

 

Ms Chang said cage-trapping was considered a ‘last resort’ for monitoring – but she was appreciating time spent with the tiny gliders.

 

“They are incredibly calm animals, we take the data as quickly as possible,’’ she said. “The moment of their release is amazing. To see a mahogany glider jumping up a tree and then gliding a huge distance to another one… it’s magnificent.”

 

FAST FACTS

 

Mahogany gliders were first discovered in 1883. Then all record of the species lay, unnoticed by science, for more than 100 years, until their rediscovery in 1989.

 

Upon rediscovery, they were listed as endangered.

 

These gliders live in a narrow band of open, wet woodlands between the Hull River near Tully and Ollera Creek north of Townsville.

 

Mahogany gliders are elusive and are usually only seen at night.

 

They can glide 30 metres on average. It’s often not far enough in cleared land. Landholders in glider habitat are encouraged to replace barbed top wires of fences with plain wire and to plant trees to connect sections of woodland.

 

Less than half the original mahogany glider habitat remains in North Queensland, and what is left is badly fragmented. Protecting remaining habitat and establishing wildlife corridors is essential for gliders to reproduce, have food sources, and maintain genetic diversity.

 

To find out about Terrain NRM’s ‘Biodiversity Bright Spots -Tackling Woodland Threats’ project, visit www.terrain.org.au/woodlands-tackling-threats

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