Moose and Flying Squirrel
From 1959 to 1964, Rocket J. Squirrel, affectionately known as Rocky, and Bullwinkle J. Moose taught television audiences to be wary of evil Russians and, anachronistically, Nazis, while instilling a love for Canadian Mounties, all with a dose of wry comedy. The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, which has more official names than years on air, produced the world’s most famous squirrel. Not one character, fictional or not, did more to introduce humans to one of the world’s most interesting critters than Rocky J. Squirrel.
Around the water coolers at The Mountains Are Calling, we love moose. Today, however, we finish our theme week on “flying” animals (if you’re from the future, yes, we’re really referring to gliding entities, you don’t need to send me a correction letter!) with perhaps the most famous example. Rocky is no ordinary squirrel. He’s a flying squirrel!
Much like the flying lizards that we studied previously, dozens of species of flying squirrels populate planet Earth. They inhabit a tribe – a relatively rare taxonomic rank above genus and below family – called Pteromyini. 50 species of squirrels make up this tribe that falls under the umbrella of the family Sciuridae.
Just like the lizards, flying squirrels can glide from tree to tree thanks to a membrane called a patagium. These flaps form wings, spanning from the wrists to the ankles of the squirrels. Unlike other gliding critters, flying squirrels possess a cartilaginous protrusion on their wrists, which allows them to direct their gliding.
Once again, like their flying lizard mates, these creatures are lovely.
North America is home to three species of leapers. The northern flying squirrel, the southern flying squirrel, and Humboldt’s flying squirrel. The northern species mainly populates Canada, with a few dips into the contiguous United States. The southern squirrel roams and soars through the Midwest, South, and New England. The Humboldt variety overlaps on the Pacific Coast areas with the northern squirrel.
Usually in the range of 8 to 12 inches long, flying squirrels rack up some serious distance in the air. Many species top out at about 200 feet, but, according to National Geographic, 500-foot flights have been recorded!
The control they wield while airborne is impressive, something human paragliders wish they could harness.
Flying squirrel babies exhibit some intriguing characteristics. The only hair they have at birth is their whiskers. Their skin is translucent, allowing an observer to see their internal organs! Despite the seemingly underdeveloped beginning, an infant squirrel can glide, albeit in a limited fashion, by five weeks old! Just 10 weeks after birth, the youth can soar like mom and dad.
Few things could trump the ability of a quadruped to glide, but the flying squirrel has another incredible trait.
In 2019, scientists accidentally discovered a flying squirrel fluoresced pink under ultraviolet light! Perplexed, studies ensued on the three species native to North America. All three exhibited a pink glow! As of publication, the explanation for this fascinating feature is a mystery.
Who knew Rocky J. Squirrel would glow pink while thwarting Red Russian spies?
Further Reading and Exploration
Flying squirrels – National Geographic
Flying Squirrels – The National Wildlife Federation
How Squirrels Fly – Smithsonian Magazine
Ultraviolet fluorescence discovered in New World flying squirrels (Glaucomys) – Journal of Mammalogy