Squirrels that can fly?
June 6, 2013
By Chris Hoving, adaptation specialist, DNR Wildlife Division
Michigan is perhaps the best state in the country to see flying squirrels, with more forest open to public recreation than any other state east of the Mississippi River. In fact, Michigan has the largest system of state forests in the country. Forests are the place to find flying squirrels, and the forest needs to be mature enough to have at least a few snags, or dead standing trees. Many different animals benefit from snags, including flying squirrels. Flying squirrels are not particular about what kind of forest they live in, although they prefer trees with nuts, such as beech, oak and hickory.
Not only do we have abundant habitat, but Michigan is home to two species of flying squirrel: the northern flying squirrel and the southern flying squirrel. Now, don't let their names fool you - these squirrels don't actually fly, they glide! They have a loose fold of skin along each side of the body, from ankle to wrist, which extends to form a kite-like surface that allows the squirrel to glide from tree to tree.
To anyone but an expert mammalogist, or another flying squirrel, northern and southern flying squirrels are nearly impossible to tell apart. Until recently, you could be pretty sure which species you had seen just from where in Michigan you spotted the squirrel. Northern and southern flying squirrels were in the northern and southern parts of the state, respectively. However, as the climate in Michigan has warmed over the past three decades, northern flying squirrels have become increasingly rare, and southern flying squirrels now can be found statewide.
The large eyes of the flying squirrel are adapted to seeing in the dark. Flying squirrels are almost entirely nocturnal, meaning they are only active at night and few people ever see them. When we do venture outside at night, most of us tend to look down to avoid tripping over obstacles in the dark. Sometime, stop a moment and try looking up. You just might catch a glimpse of a flying squirrel gliding overhead.
How can you help flying squirrels and other wildlife in Michigan?
- Reduce your energy use, which can slow the pace of climate change and allow northern flying squirrels to continue to shift their ranges northward.
- You can leave dead trees and a few older trees when harvesting your woodlot. Snags are valuable to many species besides squirrels, including chickadees, woodpeckers and even wood ducks. Learn more about managing your yard for squirrels.
- Learn more about flying squirrels and help teach people about these unique Michigan critters.
- The DNR manages 4.5 million acres of state forest, which is no small task - cutting the right trees to create and preserve habitat for hundreds of species of wildlife, including flying squirrels. You can help the DNR by supporting the Nongame Wildlife Fund through:
With increased funding to the Nongame Wildlife Fund, we can boost our efforts to conserve and manage Michigan's wildlife. Join us in protecting the natural, wild and wonderful things that make MiNature.