Northern Australia, largely undeveloped and home to some of Australia's largest protected areas, has long been considered a stronghold for Australia's small mammals. However, over the past 20 years there has been a dramatic decline in the abundance and diversity of small mammals. These startling revelations have highlighted the need for urgent conservation action. Conservation research in the NT has so far neglected the small and charming gliding marsupials that occur across the Top End, but which we know almost nothing about. To our knowedge no surveys focused on tree-dwelling mammals have been conducted in the NT.
Lambalk or the northern glider (currently classified as a sugar glider; Petaurus breviceps ariel and the only glider known from northern Australia) is one such animal that we know remarkably little about, despite its broad distribution. Recent preliminary taxonomic work (Malekian et al. 2010) revealed that it is likely not even a sugar glider, but a species that has closer affiliations to the squirrel (P. norfolcensis) and mahogany gliders (P. gracilis), both of which occur many hundreds of kilometres away on the eastern seaboard. Recent work by our team in Kakadu National Park tentatively supports these findings, and has revealed unique morphometric aspects of northern gliders that indicate the possibility of a yet undescribed species. Detailed work to determine their taxonomic and conservation status is now urgently required.
Concurrently, we need to understand key components of the ecology of this unique species. Knowledge of population sizes, the amount and types of habitats the species requires and what it uses these habitats for is critical for implementation of targeted conservation strategies, and will help to better predict likely impacts of disturbance. We know that different glider species elsewhere exhibit quite different ecologies, area requirements and social structures, so it will be particularly informative to elucidate the ecology of the species found in the top end.