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Pink Squirrels

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

April 8, 2019

In this day and age, it is rare to discover a new species of animal. It is not surprising to discover new insects since there are nearly a million species of bugs in the world. On the other hand, there are only about 5,000 different kinds of critters on the planet. So back in 2017 is was surprising when a new species of Flying Squirrel was discovered right here in North America. Well, actually not exactly discovered, more like, separated from the existing known species.

There are 44 species of Flying Squirrel in the world. Nearly all are found in Eurasia / Southeast Asia. Here is North America we have just two species: Northern Flying Squirrel and the Southern Flying Squirrel. However, along the west Coast from Central California through Oregon and Washing and up into British Columbia the flying squirrels looked different from others. They were smaller and darker. So, a researcher started looking into these differences. They used DNA sequencing and discovered this pacific population was distinct from other flyers. And just like that, a new species was discovered. A new species hiding in plain sight. It is the 45 flying squirrel species. It was named the Humboldt’s Flying Squirrel after the German naturalist Alexander Humboldt from the late 1700’s.

Recently flying squirrels have made it into the news again. This time for something very different but yet again hiding in plain sight. A biologist at Northland College accidently discovered that the white bellies of flying squirrels shines bright pink under ultraviolet (UV) light. This is known as fluorescing.

A friend of mind recently contacted me to see if I had seen this new study. I hadn’t, so googled it up, and low and behold I read about this crazy phenomenon. At first, I thought, this is not surprising since most things that are white will glow blueish under UV light. So, I had to see this for myself.

I grabbed my super cool uvBeast (UV) flashlight which is an 18-watt flashlight with 100 LED diodes and gives off a beam of UV light. I also have a captive flying squirrel and so I dimmed the room lights and turned on the uvBeast. Instantly I could see the belly of my flying squirrel glowing a bright pink. I was shocked and amazed at how bright pink his belly appeared in the UV light.

Now the question is, why do the bellies glow pink under UV light? Of course, we don’t know and right now everything will be speculation. Some are suggesting that it is for mate selection. Well, I think this theory doesn’t even start since both male and female bellies glow the same color. Some believed it helps the squirrels avoid predators. I would have no idea how this might work and find that hard to believe. The problem I have with all these guesses are, flying squirrels are nocturnal and become active well after sunset. There is no UV light at night so I am not sure how the pink shinning belly would help.

Flying Squirrels are amazing little animals. They are omnivorous and eat everything from fruit and seeds to leaf and flower buds along with fungi. They are also large consumers of insects and other things such as bird eggs and baby birds.

Of course, they can’t really fly but rather they are experts at gliding. They have a flap of skin, called a patagium, that stretches between their wrist and ankle that acts like a furry parachute. When they begin to glide, they spread their front and hind legs, forming a square shape. A small cartilaginous wrist bone, which is only found in flying squirrels, extends out and changes the tautness of the patagium. They also have a fuzzy flat tail which acts like a rudder and helps with balance.

The last couple of nights, I take my uvBeast (UV) flashlight outside and watch the wild flying squirrels at my house gliding around in the darkness. I must say, it is very strange to see hot pink squirrels gliding through the jet-black sky at night. If you have any questions about getting your own uvBeast (UV) flashlight give me a shout. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist who travels the U.S. to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.

 

Photos by Stan Tekiela

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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