Contributed by Chris Baburek
The subject of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists’ presentation on November 17th was Flying Squirrels. The presenter was Sasha Newar, a Behavioural Ecologist and Environmental & Life Sciences Ph.D. candidate at Trent University. She is part of a team of researchers producing leading research on flying squirrels. She began with a chart of the various members of the squirrel family, including Chipmunks, Tree Squirrels, Flying Squirrels and Marmots. Flying Squirrels and Tree Squirrels cannot survive without the trees they rely on for food, shelter, protection from predators, etc.
Flying Squirrels are the only squirrels that “fly”. But as Sasha pointed out, they don’t actually fly, as the height gained on their initial jump is the most height they will achieve on that glide. For every 10 metres off the ground, a flying squirrel can glide thirty metres. These squirrels have special adaptations which allow them to glide, including a built-in wingsuit (patagium), wrist spurs and a flattened tail which acts as a rudder and allows them to turn mid-flight.
Flying Squirrels are the only nocturnal squirrels in the world. It is believed that they are one of the oldest groups of squirrels and that there were many predators driving the evolution of certain traits, including large eyes to see in the dark. Northern Flying Squirrels have also been found to be fluorescent ie, they do not produce light, but fluoresce bright pink and blue when under UV light. Investigations are currently underway as to why this occurs.
Two species of Flying Squirrels are found in Ontario – Northern and Southern – and they overlap in our area of Eastern Ontario. Sasha explained the characteristics of each type and explained that, with climate change, Southern Flying Squirrels are moving farther north. As result nest-sharing, and therefore hybridization, is occurring and currently about 4% of Flying Squirrels in our area are hybrids.
Until 2013 it was thought that Flying Squirrels were silent, but they are actually making frequent calls, just at frequencies which humans cannot hear. Tracking Flying Squirrels through their vocalization is the most effective way to find and monitor these elusive creatures. Sasha then described her research into the ultrasonic vocalizations of Flying Squirrels. Research is currently underway to determine why they communicate ultrasonically and the purpose of these vocalizations.
Sasha recently had the opportunity to be behind the scenes for the filming of a segment on Flying Squirrels, for a new nature documentary entitled Super/Naturals. She wrapped up her presentation by noting where to find more information on Flying Squirrels, including youtube and iNaturalist.
A reminder to all members and prospective members: our next Nature Talk will be held in the new year, on Thursday, January 19th. “Dragonflies and Damselflies” will be the subject and Colin Jones will be our speaker. For further information, or to become a member of MVFN, visit the website at mvfn.ca.