One of the world’s biggest gliding mammals – the once common Greater glider – has been pushed closer to extinction and is now officially endangered.
The cat-sized gliding marsupial has been moved from vulnerable to endangered on the federal government’s list of threatened species.
Native forest logging, habitat clearing, bushfires and global heating have all contributed to falling numbers of the gliders across the country, according to official advice from the government’s threatened species scientific committee.
Experts and conservationists said raising the threatened status of the gliders was welcome but the move had to be backed by urgent action to preserve habitat and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The nocturnal marsupials, which are unique to Australia, can glide up to 100 metres using a membrane that spreads between their front and back legs.
The change in status of the species – which lives from north Queensland to central Victoria – comes only six years after it was first assessed as vulnerable on the national threatened species list.
Prof David Lindemayer, an ecologist at Australian National University who has extensively studied Greater gliders, said while the government’s move to raise the threat level for the gliders was welcome, it had to come with urgent action.
He said: “These are just words unless they are met with some serious action. This shows we have been asleep at the wheel in terms of management for the last 40 years.”
Falling glider numbers were recorded before the black summer bushfires of 2019 and 2020 which overlapped with about 40% of the species’ habitat. The committee said the fires had likely “greatly reduced” the glider population, but firm numbers were not known.
Lindenmayer said: “My hope is that the new environment minister can do a lot better than the last half dozen and we see some serious action on the ground.
“We have to stop logging greater glider habitat. We have to stop logging native forests. It is ridiculous that we are still carrying out barbaric land management practices like that.
Genetic research published in 2020 found Greater gliders were not one species , but three, across their range.
The latest advice on the gliders relates to the most widespread of the three with the Latin name Petauroides volans. The other two greater glider species remain listed as vulnerable.
Lindenmayer said ongoing research was suggesting what was once thought to be one species, and then three, could actually turn out to be five.
Only a few decades ago, Lindenmayer said greater gliders would have been one of the most common species seen on night-time spotlight walks.
“These animals really are emblematic of how you make a common species rare. There’s no denying what the data shows,” he said.
“Greater gliders are crashing through the floor and we need to do something about it.”
According to the official advice from scientists, gliders living in intact and undisturbed areas were also disappearing.
The gliders have a narrow tolerance for changes in temperature. Heatwaves and rising night time temperatures had seen the numbers of gliders fall.
Dr Kita Ashman, threatened species and climate adaptation ecologist at WWF Australia, said agriculture, urbanisation, logging and bushfires were all putting immediate pressure on the gliders.
But she said climate change was also making heatwaves and bushfires more frequent and was reducing the numbers of old trees with hollows that the species use as nests.
In 2020 Ashman led research that found that clearing and habitat destruction had continued after the gliders first appeared on the threatened species list in 2016.
Ashman added that logging activity was generally government by state-based forestry agreements that fell outside federal environment law.
“We need to stop habitat destruction. But we also need to take meaningful action on climate that will make changes that will have an affect in the decades to come.”
Matt Cecil, projects manager at Wildlife Queensland, said one step the charity had made was to encourage the installation of nesting boxes for the gliders.
“We’re trying to mitigate the loss of tree hollows. Those hollows are in gum trees that are 150 or 200 years old, and without them the gliders are just not there.”
The Guardian has approached environment minister Tanya Plibersek for comment.