They’re fast, tiny, and nocturnal, so perhaps you don’t even know they’re there. Flying squirrels look like rodent superheroes. They soar from tree to tree, covering enormous distances for such little creatures, and can even make 180-degree turns while flying. But the question remains: how do they do it? Do flying squirrels fly, or do they glide?
Flying squirrels differ from bats and birds as they don’t have their own propulsion mechanisms. Instead, they glide rather than fly, using the furry membrane connecting their wrists and ankles, known as the patagium. They move their hands and feet in different directions to steer and their tails to brake.
When one of these little creatures wants to move from one tree to another, it launches from a high perch, spreads its arms and legs to open its furry parachute, and off it goes, wiggling its little arms and legs to get to its destination.
Let’s find out exactly how their bodies are built to glide from tree to tree in such a graceful manner and how they do it.
How Do Flying Squirrels Glide?
Gliding is the most basic form of animal flight. The animal makes no flapping movements to generate thrust but trades height for horizontal motion.
Certain mammals’ “flight” ability gives them some valuable advantages.
The flying squirrels save energy by gliding instead of running and climbing trees, and soaring up high increases their foraging range. It also helps them to avoid predators.
Special Features Allowing The Flying Squirrel To Glide
A flying squirrel can glide because of two parts of its anatomy: membranes and cartilage. The squirrel has two membranes, made up of muscle and skin. One membrane runs from the squirrel’s wrists to its ankles and another between the ankles and the tail.
Upward-bending pieces of cartilage sit behind the wrists like the wing tips of airplanes, which help to stabilize the squirrel in flight and decrease the drag.
How The Squirrels Use Their Special Features To Glide
Flying squirrels are the only gliding mammals with cartilaginous wrist bones. They have a tiny cartilage projection in the wrist that they point upwards while gliding.
The squirrels change their speed and direction by moving their limb positions, and these little cartilaginous “wing tips” help control these movements.
The wing tip adjusts to different angles and controls aerodynamic movements. In addition, as the wrist moves, it changes the tension in the patagium.
Flying squirrels can do a 180-degree turn mid-flight by lowering one of their arms, just like a child pretending to be an airplane! They need this skill to avoid being caught by owls and other flying predators.
The flying squirrel also has a fluffy tail that helps to stabilize it while gliding, acting as an airfoil and an airbrake when it’s about to land. In addition, its strong, padded feet cushion it from the heavy landing.
Flying squirrels have adorably large eyes set on the sides of their heads. While they may seem oversized, they give them better night vision, which is necessary for these nocturnal animals. In addition, the position of the eyes helps them to spot predators approaching from most directions.
Their depth perception is impaired, thus requiring them to evaluate their trajectory carefully before taking flight.
The Flying Squirrel’s Stages Of Flight
Scientists differentiate between three phases of “flight” in the flying squirrel. The first phase is called the ballistic dive, characterized by the squirrel jumping from a great height, the forward momentum that comes from this leap, and the speed it picks up due to gravity. There is not much lift or drag during this phase.
Next is the cruising phase, where the squirrel’s patagium does the work, and lift and drag forces increase.
It tilts its head and body, taking a more upright position, and lift overtakes the force of gravity, flattening the squirrel’s glide path.
In the last phase, the squirrel’s body is almost vertical. The net aerodynamic force continues to rotate rearward while lift increases dramatically, slowing the squirrel just enough for it to land.
The moment before it lands, the squirrel gets into a vertical position before grabbing onto the tree limb. After landing, it immediately runs to the opposite end of the branch to seek shelter from predators.
Types Of Flying Squirrels
Fifty known flying squirrels are distributed over Asia, Europe, and North America. Only three of those species are found in America, though. It is home to the southern flying squirrel, the northern flying squirrel, and Humboldt’s flying squirrel, which was only listed as a separate species in 2017. It was previously classed as a sub-species of the northern flying squirrel.
The southern variety is smaller than the northern flying squirrel, weighing 1.8 to 2.5 ounces. The northern species’ weight varies between 2 and 4.4 ounces. In addition, the southern flying squirrel is 8 to 10 inches long, while their northern cousins can be between 9.8 and 11.5 inches.
They live in mature deciduous forests or areas with a combination of deciduous and coniferous trees, where they can access an abundance of nuts.
Their diet consists of nuts, acorns, berries, flowers, mushrooms, and insects. The southern squirrel sometimes also eats carrion and eggs.
How Far Can Flying Squirrels Glide?
These little critters can cover long distances in the air as they glide from tree to tree. A typical glide of a northern flying squirrel is around 65 feet, but it can go much further if necessary. Squirrels have been observed leaping 295 feet.
Here’s a video of a flying squirrel soaring in search of fungi, which is one of it’s favorite foods.
How Fast Can A flying Squirrel Glide?
Flying squirrels can glide at speeds of up to 30 -35 mph. They don’t reach this speed during a single glide, though. Instead, these nocturnal rodents parachute 150 feet (46 meters) between trees.
According to studies, they use triangulation to maneuver, flying large distances between small hops. This skill helps them to avoid predators and find food.
The squirrel’s patagium and tail act together, allowing them to control their trajectory, reduce the shock of landing, and pivot in the air.
Fun Facts About Flying Squirrels
While we’ve spoken a lot about how the squirrels “fly,” here are some fun facts that you may not have heard before:
- All American species fluoresce at night. They glow pink.
- 90% of all the species are resident in Asia
- Flying squirrels don’t hibernate in winter but share nests with other squirrels and animals to keep warm. They have even been known to share with screech owls and bats!
- Some species are more prominent than house cats. The red-and-white giant flying squirrel can grow to 3 feet long and weigh more than 3 pounds.
Flying squirrels don’t really fly; they glide. Their furry membranes, known as patagia, cartilaginous “wing tips” on their wrists, and fluffy tails all contribute to their extraordinary ability to cover enormous distances between leaps. What incredible creatures!
Do flying squirrels fly or glide? This is a question that has puzzled scientists for years. Some say that they fly, while others claim that they glide. What is the truth? In this blog post, we will explore the science of flying squirrels and find out once and for all if they fly or glide!
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