Pet sugar gliders love to jump around from their cage to a shoulder to a couch, but can they really fly? Unfortunately, sugar gliders cannot fly but they do glide some impressive distances due to a unique quality they share with few other creatures called patagium.
Patagium (plural: patagia) is what the flexible, somewhat stretchy flap of skin that connects the front and back legs is called. A human wingsuit is modeled after this special patagium and enables humans to glide through the air before releasing their parachute to safely land when skydiving or BASE jumping.
Patagium, unlike wings on birds, does not enable a sugar glider to fly. Instead, it increases the surface area of the animal and lets it make controlled glides through the air and from tree to tree in the wild. In sugar gliders (and flying squirrels) it is a fur covered part of the skin that spreads out when your pet stretches his four legs out.
The name "sugar glider" is very literal since the small marsupials have quite the sweet tooth (sugar) and glide through the air (glider). In the wilds of Australia, sugar gliders can glide over 50 meters (164 feet) from tree to tree in search of food. They rarely jump to the ground in hopes of avoiding predators.
When a glider jumps they extend and spread their legs out to flatten and stretch their patagium to create an airfoil. This allows them to control their speed and direction by moving their arms and legs and changing the airflow, much like the wings of a bird or airplane.
Who Else Has Patagium?
Sugar gliders aren't the only animals that have this special kind of skin. Other creatures have the same patagium or variations of this patagium and can either fly or glide.
- Flying Squirrels - These rodents have the same patagium as sugar gliders and are basically the North American version of the adorable Australian marsupials we keep as pets. Many people often confuse flying squirrels for sugar gliders and vice versa.
- Bats - In these mammals, the patagium actually allows flight. It is more of a membrane that is attached to the wing bones which are designed for full flight.
- Pterosaurs - These now extinct flying dinosaurs had patagium that probably enabled it to fly like a bat does today.
- Reptiles and Amphibians - A type of interdigital patagium exists on some frogs and lizards that enables them to glide from tree to tree (or on the ground in search of a mate). Flying frogs and gliding geckos both have patagium.
- Sifakas - A lemur found in Madagascar has a membrane referred to as patagium on their inner front legs/arms. They also use this to help them jump from tree to tree in search of food.
- Colugos - Referred to as "flying lemurs" these mammals are found in Southeast Asia and have patagium much like the flying squirrels and sugar gliders have.
A few other animals around the world have different kinds of patagium. No matter where in the world they are found or how much or how little patagium they may possess, the special flaps of skin and membranes help them collect their food while gliding (or flying) from tree to tree.
By better understanding your sugar glider you'll be better prepared to offer an appropriate environment that is not only safe and secure but enriching, fun, and spacious. Have fun watching your sugar glider glide around his space!