13 June 2023


Researchers are tracking greater gliders as they move through burnt forest in one of the first studies to use GPS collars on the world’s largest gliding marsupial.

The project, underway in Tallaganda State Forest in New South Wales, is a partnership between the University of Sydney and the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia.

“How are they able to move in a canopy that's quite open and burnt? That’s what we're trying to understand,” said lead researcher Vivianna Miritis, a PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney.

“We also want to know if moving in a burnt forest exposes them to a higher risk of predation,” Ms Miritis said.

Previous studies of greater glider movement used older equipment – radio transmitters – which provided important but limited information.

Recent advances in technology have led to GPS collars so small and light they can safely be used on greater gliders.

Close up of the collars being used to track greater gliders
Close up of the collars being used to track greater gliders © WWF-Australia / Oliver Risi

Ecologists climbed to nesting hollows up to 60 metres high to capture greater gliders. On the ground, Ms Miritis and her team then attached GPS collars to eight greater gliders from burnt forest and seven greater gliders from unburnt forest as a comparison.

The GPS collars will record their movements by taking a fix every 30 minutes, from dusk to dawn, for 30 days before the animals are recaught and the collars retrieved.

It’s expected the research will generate up to 200,000 individual tracking locations providing a level of detail impossible to obtain with radio transmitters alone.

Such precise data could transform what we know about these mysterious animals and help guide efforts to recover populations.

In 20 years, greater glider numbers have declined by up to 80% due to land-clearing, logging, and climate change impacts including droughts, heat waves and more severe bushfires.

Close to a third of greater glider habitat burned in the 2019–20 mega fires. In just six years, greater gliders have gone from not being listed, to being classified as vulnerable, then uplisted to endangered just last year.

Dr Kita Ashman, a WWF-Australia conservation scientist who took part in the field work, said there were a few theories on how fire-damaged habitat alters glider behaviour.

“They could expand their home range as they’re forced to travel further to find food and nesting hollows, or they could remain in unburnt patches within the burnt forest resulting in a much smaller home range,” Dr Ashman said.

Preparing to fit a greater glider with a GPS collar
Preparing to fit a greater glider with a GPS collar © WWF-Australia / Oliver Risi

Proposed conservation actions for greater gliders include translocations, installation of nest boxes, and provision of supplementary food and water.

The GPS collar research will provide detailed information on glider movements and habitat use, crucial to support the success of such interventions.

The knowledge gained from tracking gliders in unburnt forest could have implications for the forestry industry.

Forestry prescriptions for how much greater glider habitat can be logged are based on old data derived from manual VHF tracking with radio transmitters.

“It is highly likely that greater glider movement and habitat requirements are being underestimated as a result,” said Dr Ashman.

“Saving these special animals is really important because they’re an indicator species. The presence of greater gliders is a sign of a healthy forest supporting a diverse range of species and that’s what we all want to see,” said Ms Miritis.

Given the ongoing loss of forest, WWF-Australia is calling on the federal government to pick up the pace on the EPBC nature law reforms which are falling behind schedule at a time they’re urgently needed.

The NSW Environmental Trust has provided $40,000 for this project, and WWF-Australia has provided $25,000 through Regenerate Australia.

About Regenerate Australia

WWF’s Regenerate Australia is the largest and most innovative wildlife recovery and landscape regeneration program in Australia’s history. Launched by WWF-Australia in October 2020, the multi-year program will rehabilitate, repopulate and restore wildlife and habitats affected by the 2019-2020 bushfires, and help to future-proof Australia against the impacts of changing climate. Find out more and help Regenerate Australia at www.wwf.org.au/regenerate-australia