People may be confused about the classification of flying squirrels. In addition, they are often confused with other animals, such as sugar gliders, making their classification even more problematic. A question often asked is whether flying squirrels are mammals, rodents, or marsupials.
Flying squirrels are mammals as they are warm-blooded, have fur, give birth to live young, and nurse their young. They are not marsupials as they do not have a pouch for carrying their young. Instead, they have large incisors in the upper and lower jaw that constantly grow, making them rodents.
Flying squirrels are small creatures that may confuse some people that are unsure of which animal family they belong to. The best way to solve the problem is to look at the defining features of each group and compare these to flying squirrels.
Are Flying Squirrels Mammals?
There are a specific set of characteristics that define mammals. To belong to the class, Mammalia, the animal must show these features. So let’s take a closer look at these subspecies of squirrels to help you better understand them.
Mammals Are All Warm-Blooded
Mammals are warm-blooded. This term means that the animal can maintain its heat by internal means. Conversely, cold-blooded animals such as reptiles rely on external heating sources to maintain their body temperature.
Flying squirrels have a heart and blood circulatory system that allows them to maintain their heat, classifying them as mammals. This does not mean that a flying squirrel cannot get cold, but it does mean that the squirrel can keep a constant internal temperature in normal environmental conditions.
Flying squirrels have a heat regulating system in the brain, which keeps the body temperature constant. If the body becomes too cold, the skin receives impulses that cause the fur to fluff up, and the squirrel may start shivering.
If the temperature becomes too high, the flying squirrel begins panting and sends blood to its tail, where it cools rapidly. The cooled blood returns to the rest of the body, lowering the temperature. The hair also lies flat against the body to allow the heat to dissipate.
Mammals Have Fur Or Hair
Although there are some exceptions, mammals are generally covered by fur. Flying squirrels have soft, dense fur coats covering their entire bodies. The color of the fur varies between northern and southern flying squirrels.
Mammals Give Birth To Live Young
Mammals give birth to their babies, and they do not lay eggs. A flying squirrel’s gestation period is 40 days, after which they give birth to their babies.
Flying squirrels have between one to six babies in each litter. The female gives birth after the cervix softens and opens, allowing the babies to emerge from the vaginal canal.
Mammals Nurse Their Babies
A characteristic of mammals that gives them their name is that they nurse their babies with milk produced by mammary glands.
Flying squirrel females have mammary glands which empty into four nipples. As birth approaches, the mammary glands fill with milk. After the babies are born, they attach themselves to a nipple and suckle to receive the necessary nutrients.
The first milk produced during lactation is called colostrum. It has essential antibodies which help protect the baby flying squirrel from disease during its infancy.
As the baby matures, its immune system activates and can combat diseases without the passive immunity derived from breast milk.
Are Flying Squirrels Rodents?
Many people only think of rats and mice when they think of rodents, but there are many other animals in this family.
Rodents Have Constantly Growing Incisors
Rodents are mammals that have distinct characteristics. The most obvious characteristic is their large, paired incisors on both the upper and lower jaw.
Flying squirrels have two large incisors on the top and bottom jaws, making them rodents. Just as with other rodents, these incisors grow constantly.
This feature is essential for rodents as much of their life is spent gnawing on hard plant material to obtain food and establish nests. If their incisors did not grow, they would wear down, and the rodent would starve.
Squirrels use their incisors to bite through the hard shells of nuts, seeds, and acorns to access the nutritious kernel inside. They also use their teeth to peel off tree bark and lichen, which they eat.
Peeling the bark off trees allows squirrels to find insects living in the trees which also form part of their diet.
If squirrels cannot gnaw on hard plant material, their teeth will overgrow, causing them to develop abnormalities that would ultimately kill them.
Rodents Have A Specific Body Shape
Most rodents have short limbs attached to robust bodies and long tails. Flying squirrels meet these requirements.
Their tails form about one-third of their total body length. Their legs are short, resulting in them carrying their bodies low to the ground if they run on all four legs.
Flying squirrels do not weigh much, but their bodies are lithe and robust, allowing them to scramble and climb through trees.
Rodents Are Social
Rodents typically live in groups with an ordered social system. Flying squirrels generally live in family groups, with newcomers occasionally joining the community.
Are Flying Squirrels Marsupials
Marsupials are a mammal with a pouch that functions as an external uterus. The placenta in the uterus only provides food for the growing baby for a few days. Marsupial babies are born when they are tiny fetuses and highly undeveloped.
Newborn marsupial babies have primitive hind legs but better-developed forelimbs with sharp claws. They inch their way from the birth canal to the pouch or fold of skin that acts as a pouch.
Once in the pouch, they attach themselves to a teat and obtain nutrients while further development occurs. Most marsupial babies take a considerable time to develop in the pouch.
Flying squirrels have a placenta that supports the baby until it has fully formed limbs and is well developed compared to a marsupial baby at birth. They have no pouch, and the baby is not carried around with the mother.
Flying squirrels are, therefore, not marsupials.
Flying squirrels are both mammals and rodents as they have characteristics of both. However, they are not marsupials as they do not have a pouch, and their babies are born with all their limbs developed.
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