Can a flying squirrel really fly?

When night falls, a squirrel with big black eyes starts moving through the forest, sometimes visiting bird feeders. It’s a flying squirrel. To see it launch itself from one tree and land on another, you’d think it could fly like a bird. What’s going on here?

Actually, the flying squirrel does not really fly. In mammals, only bats have the ability to fly freely in the sky like a bird or a butterfly, and to move through the air using the strength of their wings.

The flying squirrel is, however, brilliant at gliding. It can glide over a distance of 30 to 50 metres, sometimes even more, launching itself from the height of its perch to land slightly lower down, on the ground or on a neighbouring tree.

It throws itself into space head first. Lengthening its paws, it deploys its patagium, the muscular skin membrane that extends between its limbs and its sides…and which inspired the famous wingsuit of base jumpers. During the “flight”, its wide, flat tail acts as a stabilizer and its patagium (pl. “patagia”) acts as the supporting surface.

It can change direction and turn through 90 or even 180 degrees by modifying the tension of the lateral folds and by moving its tail. It lands head-side up by raising its tail and braking with the help of its patagium, which acts like a parachute.

The flying squirrel has well developed night vision. Its big black eyes capture the smallest amount of light and allow it to find its way in the dark.

Because it emits shrill cries as it moves, it was long believed that the flying squirrel used echo-location, like bats. But examination of its nervous system appears to contradict this hypothesis.There are two species of flying squirrel here. The most common, the Northern flying squirrel (larger), is found in almost all wooded regions of Canada. The second, the Southern flying squirrel (smaller), lives in the extreme south of Québec and the eastern United States.

Open your eyes wide and take advantage of clear nights to see these fascinating creatures.

The flying squirrel is featured this month at Animalium, Mont-Tremblant’s zoological museum.


By the same author: White-tailed deer: frequent collisions (Click the image below)


Jacques Prescott71 Posts

Jacques Prescott est biologiste, professeur associé à la Chaire en éco-conseil de l’Université du Québec à Chicoutimi et co-fondateur de l’Animalium, le musée zoologique de Mont-Tremblant. Spécialiste de la biodiversité et du développement durable, il est l’auteur de nombreux livres et articles sur la faune et la conservation de la nature. Il nous fait l’honneur de rejoindre notre équipe de collaborateurs et signera chaque mois une chronique intitulée Faune et flore. / Jacques Prescott is a biologist, associate professor with the Chair in Eco-Counselling of the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, and co-founder of Animalium, the zoological museum of Mont-Tremblant. A specialist in biodiversity and sustainable development, he is the author of numerous books and articles about wildlife and nature conservation. He has honoured us by joining our team of contributors and will write a monthly column entitled Wildlife and Habitat.


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