Australian scientists have discovered one of Australia’s best-loved animals isactually three different species.

A team of researchers from James Cook University (JCU), The AustralianNational University (ANU), the University of Canberra and CSIRO analysed thegenetic make-up of the greater glider – a possum-sized marsupial that canglide up to 100 metres.

JCU’s PhD student Denise McGregor and Professor Andrew Krockenberger were partof a team that confirmed a long-held theory that the greater glider isactually multiple species.

As a part of her PhD project to understand why greater gliders varied so muchacross their range, Ms McGregor discovered that the genetic differencesbetween the populations she was looking at were profound.

“There has been speculation for a while that there was more than one speciesof greater glider, but now we have proof from the DNA. It changes the wholeway we think about them,” she said.

“Australia’s biodiversity just got a lot richer. It’s not every day that newmammals are confirmed, let alone two new mammals,” Professor Krockenbergersaid.

“Differences in size and physiology gave us hints that the one acceptedspecies was actually three. For the first time, we were able to use DiversityArrays (DArT) sequencing to provide genetic support for multiple species.”

Greater gliders, much larger than the more well-known sugar gliders, eat onlyeucalyptus leaves and live in forests along the Great Dividing Range fromnorthern Queensland to southern Victoria. Once common, they are now listed as‘vulnerable’, with their numbers declining.

Dr Kara Youngentob, a co-author from ANU, said the identification andclassification of species are essential for effective conservation management.

“This year Australia experienced a bushfire season of unprecedented severity,resulting in widespread habitat loss and mortality. As a result, there’s beenan increased focus on understanding genetic diversity and structure of speciesto protect resilience in the face of climate change,” she said.

“The division of the greater glider into multiple species reduces the previouswidespread distribution of the original species, further increasingconservation concern for that animal and highlighting the lack of informationabout the other greater glider species.”

She said there have been alarming declines in greater glider populations inthe Blue Mountains, NSW and Central Highlands, Victoria and localisedextinctions in other areas.

“The knowledge that there is now genetic support for multiple species, withdistributions that are much smaller than the range of the previouslyrecognised single species, should be a consideration in future conservationstatus decisions and management legislation,” Dr Youngentob said.

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