Peaks To Plains: Flying squirrel research launched

The first thing you need to know about flying squirrels is that they don’t actually fly.

Instead they are more like gliders, or a kite, using loose skin attached at their wrist and ankles to help them cover up to 130 feet by air before landing, usually at the base of a tree they then scamper up.

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton

It seems it’d be hard to miss small rodents propelling themselves through the trees in the Wyoming Range or Sinks Canyon, but the nocturnal animals remain elusive. In fact, exactly where they live and how many there are in Wyoming is still a mystery, said Martin Grenier, nongame mammal biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish.

But new research started last week by Wyoming Game and Fish hopes to create at least a baseline population trend that will show where they call home.

Flying squirrels are native to Wyoming and are found most often in the western part of the state.

Studies are beginning first in the Wyoming Range where researchers will focus on four 10-acre plots, Grenier said. Within each sample area are 16 survey stations. Bait tubes, filled with attractants like peanut butter and bacon grease, will lure the squirrels to the area where the cameras will photograph night feeding. While scientists won’t be able to differentiate between individual squirrels, it will show if squirrels are present in specific areas and the data from systematic sampling can be used to create a baseline population trend.

A Wyoming Game and Fish employee sets a bait tube for a flying squirrel

A Wyoming Game and Fish employee sets a bait tube, used to lure flying squirrels into the area where their images can be caught on infared cameras. (Wyoming Game and Fish — click to enlarge)

The two year-project is headed by Wyoming Game and Fish, with additional funding from the Wyoming Big Game Coalition Fund, as well as state wildlife grants and the legislature, Grenier said.

While squirrels might not be the sexiest of mammals, they were listed as a species of greatest conservation need in 2010, Grenier said. That means they are key to Wyoming’s diversity and serve as an important prey mammal for bigger animals like martins and lynx. They also are often dinner for owls and raptors. They are important to ecosystem health, playing a role in dispersal of fungi within the system.

While flying squirrels are active year round, they are primarily nocturnal and therefore a bit hard to spot, Grenier said. They are found in areas with dense canopies and mature tree stands, Grenier said. Truffles are a favorite food; they also eat eggs and tree buds.

A flying squirrel is caught on an infared camera approaching a bait tube. Research is underway in Wyoming to try learn more about flying squirrel populations.

If spotted, they do look obviously different from other squirrels, not just because of the loose folds of skin, but also because their tail, which acts as a rudder while gliding, is flat. They also don’t have an eye ring like other squirrels and are a grayish-brown drab color, Grenier said.

They most obviously are identified though if they are soaring through the air, or stumbling through the forest; they aren’t built to move well on the ground and spend most of the time in the upper canopy.

They do leave signs they are in the area, like small holes at the base of trees where they’ve taken truffles, or if a predator has found them, a tail.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com.

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Published on August 28, 2012

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