Meet the “Flying  Mitten”

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN FINLAND

SQUIRRELS are found almost everywhere on earth. Few, however, are like the extraordinary Siberian flying squirrel, commonly termed the “flying mitten.” * Can this little rodent really fly? What kind of creature is the flying mitten, and why is it so seldom seen?

How Do They Fly?

While all squirrels that live in trees bounce from tree to tree, none of them can beat the flying squirrel. These rodents are known to leap as far as 260 feet! [80 meters] But how does this squirrel do it?

The flying squirrel has aerodynamic membranes that would amaze any airline engineer. “Its front part is supported by a rod of cartilage starting from the wrist,” says the book The World of the Animals. “Although the membrane looks as though it has only two layers of skin, there is a thin layer of muscles that enables these squirrels to change the curvature of the gliding surface in order to adjust its aerodynamic qualities.”

The name flying mitten is fitting, since while gliding, the squirrel appears to be completely flattened, much like a mitten. When not gliding, the squirrel sometimes looks as if it were wearing a gray fur coat several sizes too big!

How can the squirrel fly without bumping into anything? Its tail acts as a rudder, guiding the squirrel’s flight. Just before landing on a tree, the squirrel opens its “brake parachute”​—that is, it turns to a vertical position. Very rarely does a squirrel miscalculate and fall to the ground.

This furry “hang glider” is also helped by its light weight. An average adult flying squirrel weighs only about five ounces [150 grams] and is about eight inches [20 centimeters] in length, not including the tail. The ears are small and have no tufts, so they do not impede the squirrel’s flight.

A Night Pilot

The flying squirrel has unique eyes, which resemble large black pearls. Unlike other squirrels, the flying squirrel is a nocturnal animal. Hence, it needs good eyesight to find its favorite food​—the catkins and leaves of deciduous trees and the buds of conifers. Because there is less food available in winter, during autumn the flying squirrel collects small stores of catkins in caches on branches and in tree holes.

In the spring some flying squirrels become so consumed with play that they forget to take their afternoon nap. Besides, at this time of year, the squirrels have something else on their mind​—mating. After the female is sufficiently impressed by the male’s flight  display, it is time to start thinking about a nest. The nest will be either a birdhouse, if one is available, or a hole in a tree. Usually the flying squirrel has many nests. Some are used as food caches, and others as spare apartments. Some flying squirrels will even make a nest in a barn. Unlike other squirrels, though, the flying squirrel refuses to dwell in the city!

Late in the spring or early in the summer, the mother flying squirrel will give birth to two or three offspring. Feeding them keeps her busy, even during daytime. At birth these infants are about the size of your fingertip; yet, before autumn has ended, they will have glided from the nest!

Why Seldom Seen?

Why is the flying squirrel seen so seldom? One reason is that this little nocturnal creature moves silently through the canopy of trees and does not readily catch one’s attention. In addition, the flying squirrel prefers the northern mixed woods stretching from the Baltic Sea through the Russian taiga to the Pacific Ocean.

The vast forests of Siberia seem to guarantee the survival of the Siberian flying squirrel. Nevertheless, this species​—like other hole nesters—​has lost suitable nesting places as a result of deforestation. In Finland, the western region of its habitat, the flying squirrel is protected by a European Union decree. Just a glimpse of a flying squirrel in the canopy or the discovery of its droppings can postpone or cancel a construction project.

Of course, flying squirrels are unaware of the consequences their droppings may have, and nothing seems to disturb their routine. As dusk falls in the northern woods, thousands of tiny noses come out of tree holes. Long whiskers twitch, delicate branches swing, and the flying mittens are in action once again!

[Footnote]

^ par. 3 This is just one of more than 30 species of flying squirrels. Many, including the cat-size giant flying squirrel, reside in the forests of Southeast Asia. The African scaletail squirrels are not usually listed among the other flying squirrels, although they are very similar in appearance. The most distinctive identification mark is their tail, which has hair only on the tip and part of the base.

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Catkins, a favorite food of the flying squirrel

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Baby Siberian flying squirrel

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Ilya Lyubechanskii/BCIUSA.COM

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Squirrels: Benjam Pöntinen

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Squirrels: Benjam Pöntinen