The animal kingdom is simply amazing. There’s always a unique characteristic that is solely limited to a few of them; one of these is the ability of some mammals to glide (oftentimes mistaken to be “flying”). The presence of flying squirrels and their unique ability to glide is a perfect example to that. Its ‘flying’ ability may not be as powerful as the birds but they are among the most unique animals who are capable of moving smoothly on air.
Also known as Pteromyini or Petauristini, these flying squirrels belong to the genus Glaucomys. They are the only species of flying squirrels that can be found in North America. They can be seen in states like Alaska, Washington, California, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, and Michigan. While they are also found in Canada, a small number can also be seen in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Where Do They Come From?
Studies revealed that flying squirrels are among the oldest species of the modern squirrels. Generally, squirrels have been existing as far as 38 to 55 million years ago. They were first seen during the late Oligocene period (about 30 million years ago) while some of its species were first seen in the later stage, during the Pilocene period (about 2.5 million years ago).
As to when the flying squirrels are first seen is not well-documented. One reason for this is that the bones of these squirrels do not fossilize well. Because they live mostly in trees, experts were having a hard time locating and preserving dead bodies of flying squirrels. The only fossil record found for this specific group was their teeth. Several attempts have been made to use it for tracking the history of flying squirrels but to no avail.
Experts argue that in order to accurately determine the exact origin of these mammals, they need both the fossilize bodies and the dental characteristics. Absence of either one of them won’t be able to accurately determine their origin.
Generally, flying squirrels are small-sized mammals that are about 10 inches long (measured from the tip of their nose up to the tip of their tail). They have this distinct grey brown fur on top and cream-colored fur underneath. They have large, round eyes which they use for seeing at night and flat, furry tail which play a role in their flight. One of the most distinguishable characteristics of flying squirrels is its loose fold of skin found between their front and rear feet. This skinfold is also known as patagium and this what makes gliding possible for these animals.
Flying Squirrels and their ‘Flying’ Ability
The distinct mark of flying squirrels is their ability to glide; that is, to make a smooth continuous motion. Technically speaking, gliding isn’t really flying but when these squirrels glide from one tree to another, they could be mistaken to be flying. When they glide, their limbs form an “X” (front feet forward and rear feet backward). This changes the tautness of their special membrane patagium, forming into a square-like parachute allowing them to move from one tree to another without falling.
One amazing thing about these flying squirrels is that they can change the direction and even speed of their glide simply by changing the position of their limbs. These squirrels are capable of gliding at 30 to 40 degrees and amazingly, can make a turn of up to 90 degrees especially when there are obstacles.
Landing is a breeze for the flying squirrels. Just before they reach their destination, they raise their flat tails that immediately change their trajectory motion. Both their limbs and special membrane are used to reduce the impact of the landing.
When they land, their flat tail serves as their air break, allowing them to land safely on a tree. They run immediately to the opposite side of the nearest branch or on the top of the tree. This is an instinctual behavior that keeps them safe from potential predators.
Flying Squirrels: Predators or Preys?
Flying squirrels are more of preys than predators. They have a number of predators including the owls, rattlesnakes, fisher, raccoon, bobcat, lynx, marten, coyote, weasel, and arboreal snakes. Their coat make it easier for them to blend with the environment especially when their predators are around. When they are, they usually remain still until their hungry predators leave the area.
Because the eyes of the flying squirrels are located at the sides of their head, their visual acuity is not as keen as other animals. Theirs is only limited to seeing blurred movement. If they are not watchful, their predator could grab them in a snap without even noticing the slightest warning from the attack.
One way for these flying squirrels to protect themselves from predators, most commonly the owls, is to run on the opposite side of their landing site. This protective behavior of the flying squirrels eventually become part of them that they do it even there are no owls around.
Naturally, flying squirrels are found in deciduous areas. They also thrive in mixed coniferous/deciduous forests where there is abundance in spruce and birch. They usually build their nests 1 to 18 meters above the ground. These nests are often made of twigs and bark with the softer part composed of leaves, fur, and conifer needles.
How Flying Squirrels Reproduce
At an average, flying squirrels have a lifespan of 4 years. Courtship among ‘adult’ flying squirrels usually starts in March and lasts until May. Mating occurs during spring and pregnancy, which often follows after that, lasts from 37 to 42 days.
An adult female flying squirrel could give birth to 1 litter of flying squirrels in a year. Each litter could be as small as 1 to as large as 6. When newborn flying squirrels are born, they are poorly developed. They are characterized by closed eyes and ears, cylindrical tail, and fused toes. However, physical development starts to unveil starting on the 6th day. By that time, the toes begin to separate and after 31 days, the eyes open.
Usually, the mother takes care of the newborn with the help of the male squirrel. Most young undeveloped flying squirrels remain under their mother’s care until full maturity is achieved which often happen on the 40th day.
Understanding the Behavior of the Flying Squirrels
Flying squirrels are nocturnal animals. They only come out of night, starting about 2 hours after sunset until 2 and a half hours before sunrise. Unlike other types of squirrels, they are clumsy on the ground. Thus, they glide when they move from one tree to another. They are so good with gliding that they could smoothly do that up to 48 meters.
In deciduous forests, they are often found nesting in the holes of trees. However, there are also flying squirrels found to build leaf nests while there are also those found dwelling underground. One interesting trait of these mammals is that they do not stay in one nest for too long. They often shift from one nest to another.
During colder months, flying squirrels form aggregations. Every aggregate nest usually has 4 to 10 squirrels. These aggregations help them withstand the cold through preserving their body heat.
The Flying Squirrels’ Diet
The flying squirrels don’t have a specific kind of diet though most of them consume fruits and nuts. Red and white oak trees as well as hickory and beech trees are among their food sources. They also feed on flowers, insects, mushrooms, carrion, and even the mycorrhizal fungi. These animals have a unique gut that allow them to take away the nutrients from the fungi.
This diet could change depending on the current environment of the squirrels. Sometimes, they take whatever food the environment or season provides. Their diet could also shift into other food sources depending on their “hunger state”.
Diseases Affecting the Flying Squirrels
There are different parasites that could thrive on the flying squirrels. These include mites (commonly affected by Psorergates glaucomys, Euhaemogamasus ambulans, Trembicula micrati, Haemolaelaps megaventralis, Haemogamasus reidi, Androlaelaps fahrenholzi), lice (commonly affected by Haploplura trispinosa, Nechaematopinus sciuropteri, Enderleineilus replicatus, Microphthirus ucinatus), fleas (commonly affected by Opisodasys pseudarctomys, Epitedia faceta, Orchopeas howardii, Peromyscopsylla catatina, Conorhinopsylla stanfordi, Leptopsylla segnis), and protozoa (commonly affected by Eimeria parasciurorum, Eimeria dorneyi, Eimeria glaucomydis, Eimeria sciurorum, Trypanosoma denysi). These parasites often bring allergies and diseases to the flying squirrels.
This specific type of squirrels are affected by one human disease, a typhus. Caused by Rickettsia prowazekii, this type of typhus is endemic in some of the eastern parts of the United States. This disease though is rarely passed from squirrels to humans.
Difference Between Flying and Other Types of Squirrel
There are certain characteristics that make flying squirrels different and the same with other types of squirrel including the grey squirrel and ground squirrel. Obviously, a distinct difference among them is the flying squirrels ability to glide which many people mistaken to be ‘flying.’ Unlike the flying squirrels, both the grey and ground squirrels don’t have the elastic membrane that makes it possible for flying squirrels to make a smooth continuous motion on air. Another notable difference is their lifestyle. While grey and ground squirrels wander around their habitat during daytime, flying squirrels are known to be nocturnal animals. This is an instinctive behavior to keep them safe from the birds that often feed on them.
Flying squirrels may have this ability to glide from one tree to another and they may go out more during the night but there are still characteristics both shared by these types of squirrels. One of which is their habitat. They can be found in deciduous forests and are often seen thriving on trees or in nests formed in these trees. They have the same kind of diet, feeding mostly on fruits and nuts, sometimes insects. The grey and ground squirrels may lack the ability to glide but just like the flying squirrels, they love to move from one tree to another albeit through their feet. Aside from the elastic membrane that flying squirrels have, these three type of squirrel species shared almost the same set of physical characteristics.
Flying Squirrels as Pets
Having flying squirrels as pets may seem like a great idea. But before you get one, you have to make sure if it’s legal. The ‘exotic’ status of these animals make them one of the highly-sought mammals in the animal kingdom (thanks to their unique ability to glide). However, this has negative implications. With more people wanting to get them as pets, there is also that risk involved in making them close to extinction. Thus, there are states that don’t allow flying squirrels to be raised as pets. These include Alabama, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon, and Virginia. There are also states that require some license to own a flying squirrel. These states include Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Oregon, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Utah, and Wyoming.
Some states though may allow you to own a flying squirrel. However, if you’re just thinking of getting one because they’re cute or exotic, then you better omit them from your options. Animals raised as pets are more than just for flashing to your friends; they also deserve some TLC (tender, love, and care).