Do flying squirrels really fly?
— Gwendolyn, 9
Flying squirrels may not really fly, but they do have flaps of skin on their bodies that act like parachutes and help them glide through the air.
My friend, Todd Wilson, told me all about it. He’s a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon and graduate of Washington State University who researches Pacific Northwest ecosystems and the animals that call them home — including flying squirrels.
When flying squirrels are trying to avoid predators, like weasels, sometimes they will run to the top of a tree. The weasel might think the flying squirrel has nowhere else to run. That’s when the flying squirrel makes its move.
“The flying squirrel can just take off and glide,” Wilson said. “When they launch themselves from a tree, they can actually go quite a ways out, but they’re not actually flying.”
Depending on the tree, flying squirrels can sometimes glide for hundreds of feet. As they glide, they can use their tail to steer around and between other trees.
Flying squirrels are not only amazing to watch, but they also play an important part in forest ecosystems.
While other tree squirrels eat a lot of nuts or seeds from tree cones, a big part of a flying squirrel’s diet is something different. They eat an organism called fungi that live under the soil.
“Flying squirrels eat the fruits of the fungi in the forest — if the fruit is above ground, it is called a mushroom. If the fruit is below ground, we call it a truffle. Flying squirrels eat a lot of mushrooms and truffles, and then pass them through their digestive system,” Wilson said.
Flying squirrels help spread the fungi around the forest through their, well, poop. As new fungi grow, they suck up nutrients from the soil and pass on those nutrients to trees. In exchange, the trees give fungi some sugars that help the fungi grow.
While flying squirrels play a big part in our forests, we rarely see them during the day. They are nocturnal, or active at night. But sometimes we can hear them.
They are pretty quiet compared to other squirrels, but they occasionally make a chittering sound as they meet up with other flying squirrels. We sometimes hear a big slap when they land on a tree. After all, there’s a lot of power and speed in that glide.
When flying squirrels glide during the night, they may pass other nocturnal neighbors in the sky, like bats.
Of all the thousands of mammal species on our planets, bats are the only mammals that can truly fly.
You know, the living things in the forest are linked together in important ways. They need each other to live and grow. Humans also play a big part in our forest ecosystems.
Can you think of ways humans are connected to the forest? Maybe you can even find some connections between you and a flying squirrel. Share your answers and ideas with us.
Have a science question? Ask Dr. Wendy Sue Universe, WSU’s resident science cat and writer, by email at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.