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Flying Squirrel Facts

Abhijit Naik
As bizarre as it may sound, squirrels with the ability to fly from one tree to another do exist. If we are not aware of the existence of flying squirrels or interesting facts about them for that matter, then it is most likely because of the fact that they are arboreal and nocturnal.

Did You Know?

Flying squirrels don't actually 'fly' as their common name may suggest ... they 'glide'!
The term 'flying squirrel', in a broad sense, is used for any of the 44 odd species of squirrels which are clubbed under one tribe, the Petauristini tribe (a.k.a. Pteromyini tribe). These squirrels are found in Asia, North America, South America, and Europe, with Asia having the distinction of being home to most of the species. As for the American continents, two species are found on them, while one is found in Europe.

Why are They Called Flying Squirrels?

Gliding flight is also seen in snakes belonging to the Chrysopelea genus, popularly referred to as the 'flying snakes'. Flying squirrels use the patagium―a membrane stretching from the wrist (forelegs) to the ankle (hind legs)―to pull off this amazing feat.
These species simply jump and deploy the patagium, which works like a parachute when fully stretched and helps them glide in the midair. Once airborne, these squirrels use their arms, legs, and tail to navigate from one tree to another.

Interesting Flying Squirrel Facts

Even though these species just glide, they are experts at it. They can glide over a distance of around 20 - 40 meters with ease, which makes it appear as if they are flying, and therefore, they are called flying squirrels. More of such interesting facts about the different flying squirrel species are given below.

American and European Species

The Northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) and Southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans) are the only flying squirrels found in North America, and thus, are referred to as the New World flying squirrels. Similarly, the Siberian flying squirrel (Pteromys volans) is the lone species found in Europe.

Size Range

The Woolly flying squirrel (Eupetaurus cinereus), native to Pakistan in South Asia, is the largest, with a head to body length of 18 - 24 inches. This makes it the biggest gliding animal, and the longest species of squirrel in the world.
In stark contrast, the species belonging to genus Petaurillus, the pygmy flying squirrels are the smallest. Sadly very little is known about the members of this genus found in Malaysia. They are enlisted as Data Deficient by the IUCN.

Endangered Species

The Bhutan giant flying squirrel (Petaurista nobilis), Whiskered flying squirrel (Petinomys genibarbis), Temminck's flying squirrel (Petinomys setosus), and Vordermann's flying squirrel (Petinomys vordermanni) are enlisted as vulnerable species by the IUCN.
Species like the Sipora flying squirrel (Hylopetes sipora), Mentawi flying squirrel (Iomys sipora), and the Siberut flying squirrel (Petinomys lugens) have already been added to the IUCN's list of endangered species.
The Namdapha flying squirrel (Biswamoyopterus biswasi) native to northeastern India has been enlisted as a critically endangered species. Very little is known about this species, which isn't really surprising considering that its sightings are very rare.
There also exist species like the Sumatran flying squirrel (Hylopetes winstoni) and Lesser pygmy flying squirrels (Petaurillus emiliae) which are only known from a single specimen encountered in the wild. Though these are not declared extinct as yet, the chances of encountering upon them in the wild are as good as none.
On the brighter side, two new species of flying squirrels, the Mechuka giant flying squirrel (Petaurista mechukaensis) and Mishmi Hills giant flying squirrel (Petaurista mishmiensis) were discovered in the state of Arunachal Pradesh in India.

Physical and Behavioral Characteristics

A closer look and you realize that these squirrels have large eyes, which play an effective role in their nocturnal behavior.
They rest during the day and start foraging for food only after nightfall. Though their diet predominantly comprises fruits, nuts, and bird's eggs, these squirrels are known to eat anything. In fact, the southern flying squirrels even eat snails and slugs when they are hungry.

Threats in the Wild

The predators of flying squirrel include owls, snakes, raccoons, and domestic cats as well. They are vulnerable to owls when they take the aerial route at night and threatened by snakes and raccoons when they are holed up in trees.
Owing to this large-scale predation, a high mortality rate is seen in these creatures. While their life expectancy is around 6 years in wild, they are known to live for as long as 15 years in captivity.

Flying Squirrels as Pets

The docile nature of the flying squirrels makes them ideal pets. These species can live up to 15 years in captivity (depending on the care you provide.)
If you do keep them as pets, you need to house them in a cage made from a wire mesh instead of wood, or else they will easily chew their way through it. 

You can spread a newspaper in the cage; that will make the task of cleaning easier for you.
In captivity, their habitat should also include a dish for food, shallow dish for water, and a running wheel to exercise. You can either opt for specially-formulated squirrel food or go with fruits, nuts, and seeds when it comes to feeding.
The former is highly recommended, as it will ensure that your pet doesn't fall short of essential nutrients. As flying squirrels are nocturnal, you will have to feed them at night.
Carrying the squirrel around with you and playing with it will help you bond with it, and once the bonding is well set, you can let it play outside the cage as well. The bonding part is important also because you can't keep these squirrels in a cage all the time. All in all you will have to devote a lot of time caring for your pet flying squirrel.
If you can't afford to do that, you are better off opting for an animal which doesn't require much attention.
All these facts must have helped you get rid of some of the widely believed myths about these beautiful creatures. Interestingly, flying squirrels are not the only mammals that can glide. Even the scaly-tailed squirrels, native to Central Africa, and colugos, found in Southeast Asia, are equipped with membranes connecting their front and hind legs, which enable them to pull off this seemingly impossible task.