A Sugar Glider landing on the trunk of a Red River Gum (part of the Melbourne Museum's Welcome Map foyer display).
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria
Question: Can possums fly? I was watching one in a tree in Jells Park recently and it launched itself into the air. I didn’t see where it landed, but it looked very comfortable in “flight”. Was I seeing things?
Answer: No, you weren’t seeing things. Possums cannot “fly” in the true sense of the word, but there are a number of possum species that are magnificent gliders.
Gliding possums are able to “fly” because they have a gliding membrane – a flap of loose skin that extends between their forelimbs and their hindlimbs. In some species, such as the Sugar Glider, this gliding membrane stretches all the way from their little finger to their big toe; in others, such as the Feathertail Glider, the membrane exists only between the elbow and the knee.
When they launch themselves into the air, gliding possums stretch out their limbs so that their gliding membrane is stretched taught. They steer by subtly changing the angle and curvature of the membrane and their long tails act as a rudder. As the possum comes in to land it brings its tail forward; this pulls the body back into a horizontal position. Just before the point of impact, they then reach their hands and feet out in front to grab onto the chosen landing site (usually a tree trunk). The species with the finger to toe membranes are the most proficient gliders and are able to change direction mid-flight. Sugar Gliders have been known to glide up to 100m!
There are five species of gliding possum in Victoria. They range in size from the cat-sized Greater Glider (35-45cm long with a 46-60cm long tail) to the mouse-sized Feathertail Glider (6-8cm long with a 7-10cm long tail). The other three Victorian species are the Yellow-bellied Glider (27-32cm with a 43-48cm tail), the Squirrel Glider (20cm with a 27m long tail) and the Sugar Glider (16-20cm with a 16-21cm long tail).
The possum you saw in Jells Park would have been a Sugar Glider. Sugar Gliders live quite close to human habitation in some parts of Melbourne. They are quite common in native bushland in a number of parks and reserves in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs. They nest in the hollows of dead trees and can be seen gliding from these just after dusk. You may also hear them calling. Sugar Gliders have two different calls – a high-pitched screeching sound and a puppy-like “yip yip”.