phalanger (fəlănˈjər) [key], any of the numerous and varied marsupials, or pouched mammals, of the family Phalangeridae, found in Australia, New Guinea, and adjacent islands. Many are somewhat like squirrels in appearance. They are also called Australian opossums, although true opossums belong to a different marsupial family and are found in the Americas. The koala is a well-known but atypical phalanger. Typical phalangers are nocturnal, arboreal animals with woolly fur, long, often prehensile tails, dexterous forepaws, large claws, opposable first hind toes, and joined second and third hind toes. They feed on fruits, leaves, and insects. Commonest is the brush-tailed phalanger, or possum ( Trichosurus vulpecula ), with a thickly furred tail, heavy hindquarters, a pointed face, and large pointed ears. It is found throughout Australia and adjacent areas, especially in woods, but also in towns; it has adapted well to human settlement and clearing. Cuscus is a name applied to several species of slow-moving phalangers about the size of house cats. Cuscuses have rounded bodies and heads, inconspicuous ears, and large round eyes. They display a wide range of colors. The honey phalanger is a mouse-sized, shrub-dwelling animal of SW Australia, with a very long tongue used to gather nectar, pollen, and insects from flowers. Several types of phalanger have evolved a gliding mechanism consisting of a parachutelike fold of furry skin between the front and hind legs. These animals are called gliders, or flying squirrels, although they are not related to the true flying squirrels. Phalangers are classified in several genera of the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Marsupialia, family Phalangeridae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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