The thought of seeing these strongly nocturnal mammals silent in flight in dark, ancient forests is enchanting. They are mysterious creatures and difficult to understand because they are so elusive. But one of the things we know for sure about the southern flying squirrel is that they don’t fly.
The southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans) does not migrate in that they don’t move in their masses because of a change in season, to find food, or for mating. They do travel, though; they glide from tree to tree and can reach distances of up to 240 feet or even further.
Rather than migrating to a warmer area when Winter comes, southern flying squirrels nest together in groups and benefit from each other’s radiant heat. As a result, their metabolic rate and body temperature slow down to conserve energy, and they are in a state of light, transitory hibernation, known as torpor.
But even in Winter, low on energy, they glide soundlessly from tree to tree.
Does The Southern Flying Squirrel Migrate?
The southern flying squirrel does not migrate. Animals migrate for a few reasons, one of which is to find food, which usually goes hand in hand with seasonal changes.
Animals also migrate for mating purposes. An example is the Christmas Island red crab, which spends most of its life in the forest but migrates to the ocean to reproduce.
An essential factor in the definition of migration is that it involves a return journey.
Mammals, the animal group to which the flying squirrel belongs, do migrate. An example of small mammals that migrate is lemmings, which do so periodically and for short distances in search of food and shelter.
How Does The Southern Flying Squirrel Travel?
Contrary to the southern flying squirrel’s name, it does not fly. Instead, it glides when it needs to reach a tree beyond jumping distance.
How Does The Southern Flying Squirrel Glide?
The squirrel glides by using the furry membranes of fur that stretch from its wrists to its ankles. This is called the “patagia,” supported by a piece of cartilage not found in any other gliding animal to help the squirrel steer.
The membrane forms a square when the squirrel leaps into the air, spreads its limbs, and acts like a parachute or hang glider.
Flying squirrels have the longest limbs of all the squirrels to make the “parachute” as large as possible.
Before it takes off, the squirrel moves its head from side to side to determine the distance to the targeted landing area. It then leaps and, at the same time, spreads its arms and legs to draw the membrane taut.
Moving its hands and feet in opposite directions helps the animal in steering. It descends at angles of up to 45 degrees and uses its tail for control and stability.
The squirrel’s landing is elegant and precise: it flips its tail up as it approaches the tree, holds its body back to slow down the glide, and silently lands with padded feet first. Its front limbs then come down to steady the landing.
Southern flying squirrels often scurry up the tree immediately after landing and have been known to nest with other animals, like bats and screech owls.
Why Does The Southern Flying Squirrel Glide?
The squirrel’s nocturnal gliding is for survival. It does so between trees to avoid predators. They are constantly hunted by owls, snakes, and even raccoons, so they really need this ability to “fly.”
They also find food that may be spread over an area, like fungi, by gliding.
The squirrel does not glide only in its quest to find food. It also scurries along the ground and over fallen logs to forage.
How To Identify A Gliding Southern Flying Squirrel
Southern flying squirrels have soft, gray-brown fur on their back and sides, with white underparts and a flat tail. They also have big, round eyes, which make them look adorable, but whose function is to collect more light for better night vision.
They share this attribute with many nocturnal animals, owls being the example that comes to mind first.
The northern flying squirrel is slightly bigger and darker than its southern counterpart.
Another fun fact is that flying squirrels sometimes seems to “glow” pink.
This can be observed when ultraviolet light shines on it. Its underside appears to “glow” more strongly. The reason for this “glowing” is still unclear.
Southern flying squirrels are difficult to observe because they are nocturnal animals. However, your chances of seeing them will improve in the Fall, when they are more active, gathering food for Winter.
How Far Does The Southern Flying Squirrel Travel?
The squirrel can leap many times its body length, and a single glide is usually about 20 to 30 feet, but single glides of over 240 feet have been recorded.
At What Age Does The Southern Flying Squirrel Start Gliding?
The Southern Flying Squirrel is born blind and helpless but with a fully-developed gliding membrane. It opens its eyes at approximately three weeks old.
The youngster is a fast learner despite being dependent on their mother for several months. By six weeks to 8 weeks, the squirrel can glide and execute 90-degree turns.
Where Is The Southern Flying Squirrel Found?
The southern flying squirrel’s habitat in the eastern United States, as far as the Great Plains. They are also found in Canada, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.
They live in temperate and sub-temperate hardwood and mixed pine-hardwood forests and need older trees with cavities for roosting and nesting.
They like seed-bearing hardwood trees such as poplar, beech, hickory, and maple.
These squirrels also live in suburban areas with old trees, but because they are nocturnal and quiet, you may not know that they live close by.
Improve your odds of seeing one by shining a flashlight into the trees. Their eyeshine will reveal their whereabouts.
Southern flying squirrels are pests when they take up residence in a homeowner’s attic or walls, caused by creating entryways. They also gnaw on electrical wiring.
Is The Southern Flying Squirrel Endangered?
Some populations of the southern flying squirrel are rare in Central America, but they are not on an endangered list.
However, the squirrel is facing a growing threat from large-scale deforestation.
The southern flying squirrel can travel up to 240 feet by gliding using the parachute-like membranes between its ankles and wrists.
They are agile, their gliding silent, and their landing elegant. They are great escape artists because of this gliding ability; were they not so elusive, it would have been a pleasure to watch them in action.
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