Squirrels that fly?

Both of these squirrels are toddlers and require specialized help due to their injuries, and because they are quite different from our common tree squirrel.  As you can see from Tinkerbell’s picture below, she is having issues with her eye and requires medication 5x a day.  So she went to the home of an experienced Procyon volunteer to get the help she needed to recuperate.  The male was treated at our rehab where he resides now.

It is very rare to see a Southern flying squirrel since they only live in a very small area of southeastern Ontario.  In Canada, they are identified as a “vulnerable species”, mostly due to habitat loss.  Being few in numbers is one reason that we rarely see these critters, though there is another cause.  Unlike our regular tree squirrels that amuse us with their antics during the day, these flying squirrels are nocturnal.  They tend to live in forests, making their homes in the trunks of old deciduous trees.

Flying squirrels look quite different from tree squirrels.  They are smaller and have a brownish-red fur rather than grey or black.  Very noticeable are their large dark eyes which help them see during the night.  As well, they have a ridge of loose skin on each side of their bodies, from their front to back legs.  This extra flap of skin, called a patagium, helps them to fly.  OK…. glide.  Another very visible difference between the two species is their tails.  Instead of a bushy tail, the flying squirrel has a flat, fur covered tail.  It acts as a rudder, to adjust its path in flight, and to slow down when getting to its destination. 

These tiny flying squirrels were born at Procyon about 3 years ago.  Their pregnant momma was brought in with head trauma, but still managed to birth four little ones.  Note the patagium on these infants.     Photos:  Sarah Marrs-Bruce

Many people confuse flying squirrels with sugar gliders.  If you saw both flying through the air, you’d swear they were the same species.   There are similarities, for sure, but sugar gliders are marsupial mammals, meaning that they are born shortly after conception, then crawl into momma’s pouch to continue to develop (like an opossum).  A flying squirrel is a placental mammal, which means it develops in momma’s womb, living off her placenta until birth.

These photos show the flattened, furry tail of a flying squirrel

As mentioned earlier, flying squirrels are nocturnal, coming out at night to feed.  They are omnivores, eating things like nuts, berries, fungi, little birds, eggs, and insects.  Like their cousins, the tree squirrels, they are active all winter, so they will stash some of their food in hiding places for sustenance in the cold months.  

In the late winter, these critters will begin to get frisky, with an outcome of 3-5 babies being born in the spring, after 6 weeks gestation.  They come into this world blind, deaf, without fur, and needing complete care to survive.  As is quite often the case in the wild, poppa is long gone, leaving momma the joy of child rearing by herself.  Before 2 months of age, the little ones are weaned and begin their flight training.  Within two months of that, they fly the coop!  Momma must feel the pangs of empty nest syndrome, so in the summer, she gets herself in the family way for the second time in a year.  A sucker for punishment!

The ability to fly/glide helps the squirrels to avoid predators.  They take off from high in the trees, and are capable of gliding for up to 300 feet in one jump.  They are able to maneuver in the air, making small movements with their limbs to adjust the direction they want to go.  I can tell you all about that since I am a skydiver.  I jump out of airplanes, and I can “fly” in any direction I want.  With just the smallest movement of an arm or leg, I can move right or left, forward or back, turn circles, do barrel rolls, slow or quicken my descent.  It is an amazing feeling to “fly”!  Sure, like a flying squirrel, I am just balancing on air, but I am also flying, making deliberate movements through the air.

Predators of these flying mammals include owls, hawks, and any hungry animal that can climb trees, including tree snakes.  So being able to fly helps the squirrels get away quickly.  Since larger birds can follow them in flight, they are quick to run from their landing spot before the predator can close in.  One of the defence mechanisms of a flying squirrel is that if it is caught, its tail can be broken off to give it a getaway.

Flying squirrels are social animals, sharing meals and dens with one another, most often during the cold weather.  They will huddle down, sometimes in numbers as large as 20 other squirrels, to keep warm.  They have even been known to nest with other species.  The life span of these critters is about 5 years, though they can live twice that in captivity.  Our little flying friends have been on this Earth for quite a long time.  Their ancestors have been around for 30 million years!

Now I’m going to tell you something that will really astonish you.  Flying squirrels glow bright pink!  No way, you say.  But science proves otherwise.  Under ultraviolet light, these amazing critters radiate a vivid bubblegum-pink colour which is most evident on their underbellies.  This is a very recent discovery (2019), so researchers are still unsure about why this happens. 

They think it might have to do with keeping track of one another at night when they are flying.  As a skydiver, whenever we did night jumps, we always wore fluorescent sticks so other jumpers would be aware of our positions, keeping us safer in the air.  Another possible reason for the fluorescence could be that they are just being sneaky.  You see, their owl predators’ feathers also glow pink, so maybe they are trying to fake them out.  Or, could it be the other way around?  Mmmmmm…..

Photo: Lee Rentz. https://leerentz.wordpress.com/tag/north-america/

Oh, I could tell you so much more about these interesting critters, but how can I top that wee piece of information?  You’ll just have to google the Flying Squirrel to find out more.  In the meantime, I’ll bet the rehabbers at Procyon will be itching to bring in fluorescent lights to check out this incredible phenomenon on one of our patients!  

In the meantime, perhaps some of you readers would like to sponsor one of our pink flying squirrels until they are able to be released?  They do need medical, as well as daily, care while they are being rehabbed.  Their release date won’t be until the spring, when they are healthy, and old enough, to fend for themselves.  

Sometimes we refer to “adoption” of critters in our care, rather than “sponsorship”.  No, you can’t physically “adopt” one of them, and keep it at home.  But I know how you feel.  Many are so endearing, and our hearts go out to them.  But they are wild and need to stay wild.  So sponsoring or adopting means to help with the financials costs of rehabbing our critters.  That includes medical equipment, medications, the building and maintenance of enclosures, and food.  We get no monetary support from the government.  So please be generous.  We just celebrated National Squirrel Appreciation Day in January.  Show our furry friends that we love them and appreciate their role in maintaining our Earth.

If you would like to sponsor one of these flying squirrels, see below:

Flying Squirrels Sponsorship Program

Squirrels that fly?
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Donation Total: $35.00

Squirrels that fly?