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How did the glider cross the road?

By David, 2 August 2018 News

Image of a glider on a branch.

With a tall enough pole, sugar gliders can soar over highways. Image: ©iStock.com/pigphoto

Roads are dangerous places for our wildlife. So for many years, we’ve been helping animals out by adding ways to cross safely. There are tunnels and underpasses for wombats and other ground animals. For tree climbers, there are ropeways, strung high above the traffic. But how do gliders cross the road?

Associate Professor Ross Goldingay, from Southern Cross University, thought gliders want to do what they do best – glide! His idea was simple, set up tall poles on either side of the road so gliders could fly from one to the other.

Ross organised a team of researchers to help with the experiment. They collected information about how different gliders flew. Then they used trigonometry – a type of maths linking angles and distances – to calculate a good height for the poles. It was important the poles were tall enough that gliders could cross the road, well above even the tallest trucks.

The researchers put their calculations to the test along a highway in Port Macquarie, New South Wales. They built pairs of poles, with one pole on each side of the road. They also set up a rope bridge linking trees on either side, to see if it was more popular than the glide poles. Finally, they set up some cameras to watch for gliders, and waited.

So who uses glide poles more than rope bridges? All kinds of gliders! The team expected to see sugar gliders and squirrel gliders, but that wasn’t all. They also spotted the tiny feathertail glider, and even endangered yellow-bellied gliders, during their three years of monitoring. “We high-fived when we saw our first photo of a yellow-bellied glider on a pole,” says Ross.

So these gliders love to glide across roads! But there are still questions that need to be answered. How many glide poles are needed to link up two pieces of forest? Would different designs encourage different species? There’s plenty more for Ross and his team to investigate!

For more on gliders and a wild assortment of Australian animals, pick up the next issue of Double Helix magazine. Subscribe by 31 August to get this issue delivered to your letterbox.

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