Flying squirrels belong to the tribes Pteromyini and Petauristini, which are part of the family Sciuridae. The family of Sciuridae includes all squirrels. These tribes are characterized by their unique gliding adaptations and ability to move through the air with the help of specialized skin flaps.
Interested to discover other creatures with incredible flying abilities? You can also read our bat facts and article on flying spiders. We've also got a general rundown on squirrel facts for more from the Sciuridae family.
15 Facts About Flying Squirrels
1. They are not flying; they're actually "gliding."
Despite their name, Giant Flying Squirrels do not fly. Instead, they glide by utilizing specialized flaps of skin2. They steer themselves in the air by using their tails. Various factors influence the effectiveness of their gliding abilities, including their starting point, wind direction, and weight.
These creatures can glide for distances of up to 150 feet (45 meters)! They can also make a 180-degree turn mid-flight. Northern Flying squirrels, in particular, can reach 65 feet (20 meters), according to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.
2. There are over 50 species of flying squirrels.
Flying squirrels have over 50 distinct species found worldwide. Additionally, we can find 90% of flying squirrel species in Asia, and three species are endemic to the Americas. The Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus), Southern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys volans), and Humboldt's Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys oregonensis) are the continent's only flying squirrel species.
On the other hand, the fur of Siberian Flying Squirrel (Pteromys volans) can change depending on the season. The Particolored Flying Squirrel (Hylopetes alboniger) has a multicolored black, gray, and white fur combination.
Some species are only found in specific places. The Javanese Flying Squirrel is native to the island of Java in Indonesia. The Japanese Dwarf Flying Squirrel is endemic in Japan and is known for its adorable appearance, characterized by big, round eyes and a fluffy tail.
Read more: Squirrel Species.
3. They glide through their patagium.
Ever wondered how flying squirrels glide? Unlike other squirrels, flying squirrels have gliding membranes called the patagium. This parachute-like membrane isis skin that stretches from their wrists to their ankles. When not used, the patagia are folded against the squirrel's body, making them look like regular squirrels.
When a squirrel glides, it uses its limbs to control its direction and descent. Pulling its arms and legs closer to its body can reduce resistance and go faster. On the other hand, stretching out its limbs will slow down the glide.
Gliding helps flying squirrels find food faster by moving between trees with different food sources. It also allows them to escape their predators. Additionally, their gliding ability helps them find secure nesting spots high up in trees where they can safely raise their young away from potential dangers.
4. Flying squirrels live in deciduous and coniferous forests.
Next up on our list of flying squirrel facts: Flying squirrels prefer habitats with ample tree cover3, especially in temperate and boreal forests. They are commonly found in coniferous and mixed deciduous forests of Asia, America, and Europe. However, they can also inhabit urban areas like parks. They prefer habitats with tall trees to support their gliding1.
Tree cavities and natural hollows are essential components of their habitat. These crevices are nesting sites where flying squirrels rest, breed, and raise their young. They line these nests with leaves, moss, and other soft materials for comfort and insulation.
5. They have a mixed diet.
Flying squirrels are omnivores. They enjoy snacking on nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, and birds' eggs. Unfortunately, these tiny rodents are often targeted by predators such as owls, hawks, tree snakes, and climbing mammals.
One exciting aspect of their diet is their love for tree sap. Flying squirrels have a unique adaptation that enables them to consume sap from different tree species. They make small incisions in the tree bark, allowing the sap to ooze out and become a rich source of carbohydrates and minerals for these little creatures.
6. They have enormous eyes for night vision.
Flying squirrels have excellent night vision, as they are primarily nocturnal animals. Their large eyes are equipped with a high concentration of rod cells, specialized for low-light conditions, making them adept at seeing in the dark.
Additionally, they have a tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer behind their retinas, that enhances their ability to capture available light. This enables them to navigate their tree-dwelling habitats with ease during the night. While their vision is optimized for low-light conditions, they also have some degree of color vision, helping them recognize objects and detect food sources during the twilight hours.
7. They mate in early spring.
Another flying squirrel fact is that female flying squirrels experience multiple reproductive cycles yearly, while males fiercely compete for mates. During courtship, males chase females through the trees until mating occurs. After a gestation period of about 40 days, the female gives birth to two to seven hairless and blind kits, whom she cares for diligently.
Interestingly, males do not play a role in nurturing the young, leaving the duty solely to the female. The kits are weaned at about two months and gain independence by the fourth month. Some species have a unique social structure, where older siblings assist in raising the new pups. After a series of survival trials, these young squirrels reach sexual maturity around their first year and continue the cycle of life by starting their reproductive journeys.
8. Young flying squirrels are known as kits.
Young squirrels, also known as kits or pups, grow up in nests created by their mother in tree cavities or leafy dreys. At first, they are blind, hairless, and entirely dependent on their mother's care, but they gradually develop fur and open their eyes as they mature. The mother provides nourishment through nursing and ensures their safety from predators.
The young squirrels naturally become curious about their surroundings as they grow, exploring the world outside the nest under their mother's watchful eye. This period of exploration and growth is essential for preparing them to become independent and thrive in their natural habitat. In some species, such as the Southern Flying Squirrels of North and Central America, the young are born blind, hairless, and helpless, while others are more well-developed at birth.
9. They don't hibernate.
Unlike other rodents, flying squirrels don't hibernate. During the winter season, flying squirrels remain active and continue to search for food. To stay warm, flying squirrels rely on their dense fur that provides insulation, keeping them cozy in low temperatures. Additionally, they are known to share nests with multiple squirrels, which helps them conserve body heat.
Additionally, flying squirrels (like tree squirrels) have cozy nests, which help them stay warm during the winter. These well-insulated nests in tree cavities protect them from the cold and harsh weather.
10. Some flying squirrels are larger than a house cat.
Some flying squirrels can grow larger than a house cat, which is impressive! The Malayan Giant Flying Squirrel (Petaurista philippensis), also known as the large giant flying squirrel, can grow up to three feet (90 centimeters) from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail, and it can weigh between 1 to 2 pounds (0.5 to 1 kilogram).
This species is found in various parts of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
11. Flying squirrels glow in the dark.
In 2019, researchers found that the North American flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) has fur that fluoresces under UV light. The fur emits a pinkish glow, and the exact purpose of this biofluorescence still needs to be fully understood. This unique trait could be related to communication, camouflage, or play a role in identifying individuals within their species.
12. They are not territorial and share their nests with other animals.
Flying squirrels are not territorial. They can share their homes with multiple squirrels. In colder temperatures, flying squirrels also show a sense of community by sharing nests with other animals like Eastern Bluebirds and Woodpeckers.
13. Flying squirrels use smell for communication.
One interesting fact about flying squirrels is that they use scent to mark their territory and communicate with each other. They anoint trees and surfaces to establish boundaries. The scent also plays a role in mating and group activities, such as foraging and nest-sharing.
14. Flying Squirrels love truffles
Flying squirrels and truffles have an intriguing relationship in forest ecosystems. The squirrels have an exceptional sense of smell that helps them find truffles hidden beneath the earth. When they eat these fungal treasures, they unintentionally become truffle farmers, scattering spores as they glide through the dense forests.
As the squirrels drop truffle-filled droppings, they spread truffle spores through target tree tops, leading to the growth of new truffle colonies. These newborn truffles form mycorrhizal relationships with tree roots, benefiting from a symbiotic exchange of water and nutrients with the tree trunk.
15. They are considered of least concern.
It is important to note that flying squirrels, as a whole, are not considered an endangered species. However, a specific sub-species known as Glaucomys sabrinus coloratus has been listed on the Endangered Species list since 1985. The primary threat to flying squirrels is habitat loss, and human activities such as hunting and trapping for fur or the pet trade have only added to their endangerment.
To combat this issue, conservation efforts are being made to protect their habitats, enforce stricter hunting laws, and conduct scientific research to understand these unique animals better.
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Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some other animals that start with F.
Suzuki, K., Asari, Y., & Yanagawa, H. (2011). Gliding locomotion of Siberian flying squirrels in low-canopy forests: the role of energy-inefficient short-distance glides. Acta Theriologica.
Vernes, K. (2001). Gliding Performance of the Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys Sabrinus) in Mature Mixed Forest of Eastern Canada. Journal of Mammalogy, 82(4), 1026–1033.
Keefe, E. M., & Giuliano, W. M. (2004). Effects of forest structure on the distribution of southern flying squirrels (Glaucomys volans) in urban parks. Urban Ecosystems, 7(1), 55–64.