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Flying Squirrels: The Pilots of the Forest

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

To fly without wings takes guts. Would you do it? Of course not! But it’s something flying squirrels do every night as they glide through the treetops of Will County.

A flying squirrel. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Flying squirrels can soar over 150 feet! How?

In reality, flying squirrels don’t actually fly. The tiny rodents’ amazing bodies are adapted to glide. They have a flap of skin that attaches from their wrists to their ankles and then a smaller flap of skin that attaches their ankles to their tails. These skin flaps are made of cartilage, like your nose and ears, so it is strong and flexible. Think of it like their own built-in parachute. Flying squirrels leap off high branches and spread their extra long legs out, stretching out their parachute flaps.

Flying squirrels are built to soar through the air. (Photo via Shutterstock)

To make the parachute work better, they have another trick up their sleeve. They have a wrist spur, made of cartilage, that looks like an extra long finger. It is upturned, like a wing of an airplane. And just like an airplane, it reduces drag through the air and makes the flying squirrel more stable as it glides. Try it at home! Make a paper airplane at home with straight wings. How does it fly? Now fold up the edge of the wing. Does it make a difference?

Flying squirrels don’t only fly in straight lines. By moving their legs, they can twist and maneuver around. Their tails can steer them in the right direction. Picture it like a rudder on the back of a boat. Scientists discovered that they can turn 180 degrees in the air! Their tail has other uses too. It’s their built-in break. Flying squirrels don’t just crash into trees. That would hurt!

Why do they glide?

Flying squirrels are not just soaring from tree to tree because it’s fun. They are scavenging for food. They’re omnivores like us. Hickory nuts, acorns, other seeds, fungi, fruit, bark, bird eggs, insects and even carrion (dead animals) are all on the menu.

Unfortunately, they’re not on the top of the food chain. While soaring around they must be on the lookout for owls, hawks, tree snakes and climbing mammals. They don’t want to be anyone’s dinner. When they land, they grip the bark with their claws and quickly scurry around to the other side of the tree to avoid predators who followed their flight.

Check out this video to see flying squirrels soar!

Here are some other amazing facts about flying squirrels:

  • Three types of flying squirrels live in North America: northern, southern and Humboldt’s. The only one that lives in Illinois is the southern flying squirrel.

  • Flying squirrels are really common. Never seen one? That’s because they are nocturnal. Plus, they are small. Southern flying squirrels only reach 10 inches long. That includes the tail!

  • They make sounds (listen for a “cheep, cheep, cheep”) and might even use echolocation, like bats.

  • Scientists discovered that they are fluorescent in 2017. That means if you had a black light on them, they would glow hot pink! Researchers don’t know exactly why they do this. Maybe it’s because the lichen that grows on trees is also fluorescent. Predators could confuse the rodent with lichen – it’s excellent camouflage. Maybe it’s a way of communicating with other flying squirrels. Or maybe it helps them see better when it has snowed.

  • We think their big eyes are adorable, but they serve a purpose. Oversized eyes allow more light in, all the better to see in the dark.

  • Baby flying squirrels are pretty helpless. At birth, they have no fur, can’t hear or see and are constantly flopping over.

  • Flying squirrel moms always have a backup plan! They’re known to keep several extra nests in case they need to flee in a hurry.

  • They like large wooded areas like forest preserves best, but they can be found in neighborhoods, especially places with old, large trees. So keep on the lookout!


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