Classifying Sugar Gliders – Sap Sucker? Carnivore? Omnivore? Insectivore?

This Month in the GliderVet Newsletter

Greetings Glider Groupies, Glider Newbies and Glider Wanna-bes! Welcome to the May 2012 edition of the GliderVet News!

This month, we address the natural feeding habits of sugar gliders, including the idea gliders are “sap suckers” – that they prefer foods like sap and manna.  While they eat these foods, they actually prefer insects, according to the scientists who have studied them.  Then, everyone’s favorite marsupial answers some Dear Arnold questions, so be sure to read on to see what advice our great wise one has to offer this month (with a little bit of help from Lisa)!

Please remember that this newsletter is intended to express the wishes of the whole sugar glider community.  Every article published in this newsletter is a result of someone just like you taking the time to write us with thoughts, ideas, stories and questions.  Send your comments to us here.

If you ever want to find earlier issues of GliderVet News, you can access our archives here.  Fun pics of sugar gliders sent in by our customers are found here.  If you are looking for sugar glider tested and approved products, check out our ever expanding store here.

Are you new to sugar gliders or just in the early stages of trying to decide if one is right for you?  Questions you can ask yourself to help  make this very important and long term decision are here.  

A very confusing area for those considering glider ownership (and for some current owners too!) is diet.  See what our vet has to say here.  And if you decide that a sugar glider (or two!) would become future members of your household, then you might want to check out Arnold’s great deals on starter kits, with or without cages.

Classifying Sugar Gliders
by Lisa

I find it interesting there are so many adamant opinions out there on dietary excellence for sugar gliders.  The whole topic of diet brings a lot of passion, a lot of controversy, a lot of debate, and in my opinion, a lot of misinformation.  Why all the discrepancy in agreement on good, basic dietary principles?  I will state right up front that this is an editorial piece and I hope that I can appeal to common sense and help further the cause of discerning fact from fiction.

First off, there seems to be an inconsistency in agreement on even what type of animal the sugar glider is.  Is it a sapsucker?  Is it a carnivore?  Is it an omnivore?  Or is it something else altogether?

Since we started Suncoast in 1999, we were guided by our vet, who had extensive experience with exotic nutrition care.  She said to feed our sugar gliders as omnivores with an emphasis on insects as the protein source.  We’ve made very few adjustments in our dietary plan since then.  Hey, it works, so why mess with success?

I see so many differing opinions on the dietary classification of sugar gliders and this is why I think that the whole topic of nutrition has become an argumentative battlefield of sorts.  I think it’s of paramount importance that those who are working on dietary formulas understand the actual classification of the animal first and foremost.  I’ve read quite a lot of information offered by a variety of Doctors, Veterinarians and Nutritionists and it’s no wonder the rest of us mere mortals are engaged in confused debate when amongst the most highly animal-educated there is a mixture of opinion.

The most compelling information I’ve read on sugar glider nutritional classification came from a veterinarian out west and what he shared with me not only made a lot of common sense, but it corroborates perfectly with the experience we’ve garnered over 13 years now.  His position is that sugar gliders are preferential insectivores.

What exactly does this mean: preferential insectivore?  As the name implies, it means that sugar gliders really, really like to eat insects.  It is their preference.  In the wild, sugar gliders will eat a diet of predominately bugs when bugs are abundant.  Even here in always temperate Florida, we have a series of “bug seasons”.  I’m sure that those of you who live along the Gulf Coast are familiar with love bug season where thick black clouds of love bugs swarm the interstates and will make a mighty fine mess of your car.  We don’t see love bugs year round.  It is a seasonal event.  Mosquitoes are not so obvious in the cooler and drier months, but now as we approach rainy season and temperatures in the high 80’s to low 90’s, you better be prepared to get bit or pull out mega-doses of citronella or other bug repellant.

Preferential insectivore is a more specific category of omnivore but it’s still an omnivore with very particular tastes.  For many years, a long time ago, the standard was to feed cat food as the staple part of the diet.  You see, there really weren’t that many options nor much experience when sugar gliders first landed in North America.  It takes time to evolve into good husbandry for captive exotics.  However, if you feed a carnivore diet to an omnivore, you are overfeeding protein.  Cats are carnivores and built to eat a diet high in protein. Sugar gliders do not need the same high level of protein, but they need protein nonetheless.

As preferential insectivores, sugar gliders will feast on a diet primarily of bugs when bugs are available.  They will strip back tree bark in search of bugs, and if are not finding enough of them, will eat sap, gum or manna.  As bugs have bug seasons, the sugar gliders still need to eat when bugs are scarce and it is our contention that this is when the sugar gliders eat the tree gums to sustain themselves during the bug drought.  They would rather have bugs, but there are not enough to go around.  Tree excretions are high in carbohydrates which is good to keep the energy levels up.  It is our contention that sugar gliders are not naturally sapsuckers.  There are differences between animals classified as sapsuckers and animals that will eat the carbohydrate rich saps, gums and manna as a way to keep themselves viable until bug season returns.

The most plausible information I can share with you that supports this preferential insectivore idea is sugar gliders also do most of their free range breeding when the bug population is high.  This protein seems to be quite relevant to the breeding process to not only support the mother’s health, but to promote rapid growth rates in the offspring. For those of you who’ve had the experience of breeding sugar gliders, you know that they have a very fast growth rate when compared to domesticated animals like dogs and cats.  In the wild, you better grow yourself up fast or somebody might just eat you!  And protein is the path to rapid growth.  Just ask any muscle man at the gym and he will tell you that protein is what builds muscle.

I can tell you from direct experience that our female’s with joeys in pouch become very hungry for protein.  It is easy to see this as we observe what foods they go for first.  And on nights we feed bugs (which is not every night), they will wake up at anytime to eat those bugs, then go back to sleep and get up at their “regular time” to eat the rest of their nightly meal.

Another experiential event I can share with you is the consistency in which we have opportunity to compare our just weaned babies with babies from other breeders and notice that in nearly every case, our joeys are bigger and fluffier.  Big, fluffy joeys are healthy joeys.  Small and scrawny is not something any of us would see as healthy in any type of baby mammal including baby humans.  I’m sure you’ve all seen your share of baby people.  Chubby, fluffy babies are healthy babies!  This holds true for humans, this holds true for sugar gliders, this holds true for puppies as well!

We breed sugar gliders in captivity and maintain a consistent year round environment.  As a result, we will successfully have baby sugar gliders born year round.  But why is it that in spring and summer, our birth rate increases?  Even though all of our sugar gliders are maintained indoors, temperatures are consistent, diet is consistent, how do they know that it’s the peak of bug season outdoors and have more joeys as a result?  The biological clock of nature is an amazing process.  While we can control many of the environmental factors and create a year round spring-like setting, there are factors we cannot control such as longer or shorter days , or the earth’s magnetic field.  Animal sensitivities and intuition are hard wired into the rhythms of the earth, so they just know instinctually that a particular time of year is the optimal time of year to breed.  And that time of year coincides perfectly with “bug season”.

I realize that making a bold, public proclamation that here at Suncoast we see our suggies as preferential insectivores, and feed them in accordance with that primary theory, is opening a large can o’ worms!  But at the very least, every scientific source I have seen references gliders as omnivores and does not refer to them as “sap suckers”, which implies they primarily eat tree sap.

And, in fact, though many people say “there are no scientific studies on sugar gliders”, there are lots of them.  Many of them use  language similar to this when describing feeding habits:

Insects were taken in preference to plant exudates during spring and summer (possibly to meet protein requirements for reproduction) even though exudates were most abundant during these seasons.

This particular quote is from:

Booth RJ: General husbandry and medical care of sugar gliders

In other words, even though a lot more sap / manna is available during spring and summer, gliders preferred to eat insects instead.  Given a choice, they chose insects over “sap sucking”.

Which is why we consider gliders preferential insectivores.

Because Mother Nature is always brilliant in her design of all living things, she did equip sugar gliders with a biological body that can process both proteins and carbohydrates (which might be sap in the case of the free range sugar glider).  Please do not misconstrue any of this to mean that we are suggesting a very high protein diet, because we are not.  And it is also critical to know that sugar gliders do not metabolize fat very well, so the protein sources should be good, high quality animal protein sources and low in fat.  I emphasize animal protein because the only reason to base an omnivore staple on a vegetable protein like corn, wheat, or soy is to bring the cost down; vegetable protein creates a cheaper food, not a better food.

I hope you will consider some of the common sense aspects of diet I’ve presented to you here.  We’ve reached a point in time that the long term commitments we’ve made to raising sugar gliders have proven themselves in the most significant way possible.  The best measure of good dietary practices are seen over the long haul.  These measures can be simply stated as longevity and breeding success.  Frankly, the concept of “new diets” concerns me greatly as these new diets have not been time tested and proven over generations.  In all fairness, diets must be looked at over several generations to assess the diet plans true value.  Otherwise, you are willingly making a guinea pig out of your sugar gliders and if you wanted a guinea pig, then why did you not just get a guinea pig?

I’m sure that the debate, passion and conjecture will go on and on and on, I simply ask that you trust your own good old fashioned common sense AND understand the basic eating habits of free range sugar gliders.  Then the discussion can move forward in a proactive and beneficial conversation. This ultimately results in the best overall good for sugar gliders and this is something I think we all agree upon!

Dear Arnold
by Arnold

Dear Arnold,

I want to make my own staple food and I see a lot of recipes on the internet to make up several different staple foods.  I don’t like the idea of feeding manufactured foods.  Which recipe do you suggest?

Dear TJ,

Me loves fresh foods and whilst I agree that fresh is awesome, me finds a bunch of humor in your question.  ‘Cuz ya see, if ya use stuff that is manoofacturated to make a fresh food, isn’t your fresh food really manoofacturated?  If it comes in a box, or a plastic wrapper, or a jar or a can, and you mixes this stuff up with some real fresh foods, methinks that is not really fresh food, is it?  It’s just freshly mixed manoofacturated food, if ya know what I mean.

Also, we see that our lady gliders and our baby gliders often eat during the daytime and having sumptin’ wholesome out to eat that won’t be spoilt is really good for them!  They needs a good food and when you mix manoofactured foods with fresh foods, and if ya leave it out too long, then you’ze is really offering freshly mixed manoofacturated food that can be spoilt. 

Seems awfully complicated to lil’ ‘ol me.

Toodle Ooh!
Off to entomology class now!
Arnold the Scholar

Dear Arnold,

I have a neutered male and female sugar glider.  They are about a year old now.  I never see them come out during the day to eat?

Is this ok?

Dear Ann,

Super cool question toots!  But me could use a bit more info to answer ya da best.  Most peeps feed their shugs once a day, really once per eve …. What do you do?  You two leggers make life really easy for us, cuz our cuzzins in the wild don’t have it so good.  We know you always have food ready for us, so we can sleep in, graze through our meals all night long and so we don’t have to hunt and forage like our wild cuzzins do!  

So in a way, you peeps have taught us that having food always around means we can have a “dinner time” at our leisure and this is not so for suggies that don’t live in castles.  A lot o times, they gotta get while the getting is good.  Just tink about it, when ya live outside sometimes really bad weather can swirl around for days.  I bet they get real hungry when it’s stormy out!  Not me tho, I get my meals in my castle all the time!  It’s like being on a cruise!

Ya did say that you have some suggies that are not babies any more and that they are not going to have babies of their own.  So the sleuth in me can figure that it’s possibly a life cycle moment for your fuzzy friends.  I can tell ya dis, our babies, our breeding mommies and our retirees often eat during the day.  And when somewun don’t feel so good, they will like a bit of extra food as well. I t’s a good idea to keep some pellet food out for them all day.  Ya don’t need to leave a lot, unless it’s all gone every evening, but please leave sumptin, ‘cuz sometimes we get hungry at odd times.  If for nuttin’ else, ya might can tell better if somewun not feeling so good, ‘cuz ya will see a behavior change and this could be a BIG clue for the sleuth in you!

Toodle Ooh!
Off to detective class now
Arnold the Scholar

‘Til next time, in good health for you and your gliders, we sign off in appreciation of all of you who share great glider adventures with us!