National Geographic : 1963 Sep
Blasting off from a dead limb, an airborne greater glider soars for nearly 100 yards to a feathery clump of eucalyptus leaves. Like North America's flying squirrel, the cat size marsupial puts on the brakes near flight's end by swooping upward for an almost vertical landing. Such graceful performances inspired the greater, or dusky, glider's scientific name, Schoinobates volans, which means flying ropedancer. of its unique and wonderful wildlife, I rather suspected we would find something else. As it developed, we did. Nowhere else in the world, I think, can one find as strange a collection of creatures as those that inhabit Australia and its neighbor ing islands. Among its species, perhaps the strangest of all are the marsupials. Here are mammals seemingly forgotten by time-still primitively equipped with pouches to carry and nurse their tiny, helpless young. They run an incredible range from towering kan garoos and cuddlesome koalas to wire-whisk ered Tasmanian devils, lumbering wombats, and dainty pouched mice. Before the arrival of introduced foxes, domestic cats, hunting dogs, and their white man patron, Australia teemed with bright eyed and furry folk, most of them marsupials. Some lived among the rocks and grass of the plains; some inhabited the arid, sandy in terior; still others belonged to mountainous bush or tropical forest. Nowadays only a scat tering of the hardier species survives, to the The Author: Zoologist David Fleay, M.B.E., B.Sc., Dip. Ed., C.M.Z.S., has been eminently suc cessful at keeping unusual animals in happy captivity. At Fleay's Fauna Sanctuary in West Burleigh, Queensland, and at other Australian zoos he has bred for the first time in captivity 20 wild species-among them, the fur-bearing, egg-laying platypus. His observations have led to numerous scientific papers as well as to five books, in which portions of this article originally appeared. 390 dismay of zoologists like myself, which is why we were working across a bitterly cold mountainside in Victoria that autumn night, in search of one of the lost ones. As we advanced stealthily, spotlight beams dimmed by the fog, we heard the unmistak able sound of claws on bark. Shadowy figures with long tails shot swiftly into space in a soaring leap between trees. I looked up to see two beautiful gliding possums, strange to me, clinging to the trunk of a manna gum. Gliders Grounded After All-night Chase "Never saw those fellows before," remarked Tom Hunter, a long-time bushman and pros pector. Neither had my other companion, Charles Brazenor, director of the National Museum in Melbourne. Now gliding possums, or possum gliders, are a specialized group of pouched animals which, like the flying squirrel, volplane or parachute from tree to tree (above). They range in size from the 40-inch leaf-eating greater glider down to a 5V2-inch pygmy that feeds on nectar and insects (pages 392-3). By elimination of four other species known to us, we thrilled to the fact that at long last we were face to face with the least known of all. These lovely creatures, perhaps two feet long over-all, must be the rare fluffy, or yel low-bellied, gliders (Petaurus australis). "There's only one thing for it," I said to my mates. "We've got to follow these beau ties until they take us right to their homes."