A few interesting facts about flying squirrels
Bats are the only mammals that truly fly, but they aren’t the only ones you might see swooping overhead at dusk. For tens of millions of years, a variety of other furry vertebrates have also been soaring through forests, especially after dark.
Flying squirrels — which actually glide, not fly — date back to at least the Oligocene Epoch, and now come in 43 species across Asia, Europe and North America. They sail from tree to tree on a special membrane between each front and back limb, a trick that has evolved multiple times in history. (Aside from flying squirrels, it’s also used by other aerial mammals such as anomalures, colugos and sugar gliders.
Gliding through trees by moonlight, these animals can seem like ghosts. Yet their nocturnal mystique is balanced with a doe-eyed charisma, making them valuable mascots for the ancient woodlands where they live. Humans are naturally drawn to cuteness and novelty, so conservationists often rally support for troubled ecosystems by highlighting cute or unusual animals that depend on them.
Even if we rarely see gliding mammals in the wild, it’s nice to know they’re still out there, patrolling primeval woods as they did long before our own species existed. And since their future hinges on the health of such places, anyone who appreciates these animals must be a fan of native forests, too. To shed a little light on both, here’s a closer look at the secret world of flying squirrels:
Those adorable eyes are for night vision.
Big, round eyes are one reason why flying squirrels look so cute to humans. But while this trait typically indicates infancy in mammals — like the wide eyes that endear us to babies and puppies — flying squirrels retain their disproportionately plump peepers into adulthood. They evolved big eyes to collect more light for better night vision, an adaptation shared by many nocturnal animals, from owls to lemurs.
Baby flying squirrels need a lot of mothering.
Southern flying squirrels are savvy survivors, but they only get to that point with a lot of motherly love. “Female southern flying squirrels give birth to hairless, helpless young that are extremely uncoordinated and incapable of rolling over, Their ears open within two to six days of birth, and they develop some fur after about a week. Their eyes don’t open for at least three weeks, though, and they remain dependent on their mothers for several months. “Females care for their young in the nest and nurse them for 65 days, which is an unusually long time for an animal of this size.
Mothers also maintain several secondary nests, notes the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Lab (SREL), where they can flee with their offspring if the main nest site becomes too dangerous. One southern flying squirrel was reportedly seen doing this during a forest fire, even as flames were singeing her fur.
They’re one of many reasons why old-growth forests are worth protecting.
Forests made flying squirrels who they are, creating environments where gliding skills gave their ancestors an edge. And flying squirrels have helped shape their habitats in return, spreading tree seeds and providing food for native predators like owls.
Flying squirrels only play small roles in big, complicated forest ecosystems, but those ecosystems also happen to be pretty valuable to humans, offering a wealth of natural resources and ecological services like cleaner air, cleaner water and less flooding. We sometimes lose sight of those benefits, and charismatic wildlife like flying squirrels can help us remember not to miss the forest for the trees.