The Most Common Mammal Never to Be Seen
Updated: Jan 8
I went outside to close up my chicken coop a few weeks ago when I was surprised by the glistening of two very large and very dark eyes staring at me from over the rim of a rubber trough filled with cracked corn and feed. I inched closer to inspect and — that was close enough! — the mysterious creature darted out of the trough and over the wire fence, into the woods. Having finished my chore and quite perplexed, I entered the house and, removing my coat, declared to my husband who was down the hall, “I just saw the weirdest little critter out there in the feed bowl…”
“I just saw the weirdest little critter out there in the feed bowl…”
Turns out that weird little critter was a flying squirrel, a rare sighting not because the animals are rare themselves, but because (1) they’re nocturnal and (2) they are, both literally and figuratively, flighty.
Flying squirrels don’t truly fly (bats are the only mammals to do that) but, like the curious flying fish, flying squirrels glide. Two stretches of skin between their front and rear legs make for excellent paragliding sails; these flaps of skin are called patagia (singular: patagium). And, they have not only patagia to help them aloft. Flying squirrels also have cartilage spurs at each forefoot wrist, another nifty anatomical tool that helps them glide up to 300 feet and make impressive 180-degree mid-air turns. As Mother Nature Network describes, flying squirrels’ cartilage spurs “can be extended like an extra finger, stretching out the patagia farther than the squirrel’s tiny arms could on their own”, thereby making their patagia tighter and bigger and more effective.
The variety of gliding rodent I encountered in my chickens’ feed bin was most likely a Southern flying squirrel, one of two species residing in Minnesota. Of these, the Southern variety is smaller and keeps to the combination deciduous-hardwood forests of the central and southern parts of our state; the coniferous forests of the north are home to the aptly named Northern flying squirrels.
These elusive rodents owe much of their ridiculous cuteness to bewitchingly dark eyes that are hugely disproportionate compared to their chipmunk-sized bodies. Those eyes are so big that they rightly overwhelm the little creatures’ skulls! Their purpose: to capture as much light as possible in the pitch-dark of night.
Speaking of pitch-dark, I hope you’ll remember from the last Local Wild entry that a total lunar eclipse is due upon us on the night of the January 20th full moon. Folklore and science—as well as some EMTs and a couple of midwives I know—tell me lunar cycles affect life here on Earth. I don’t know what that means for nocturnal rodent activity, but I’m guessing there will be much confusion for our flying squirrel friends as the bright full moon turns a sudden dim and bloody red. Maybe, like some nocturnal lemurs which also sport big eyes for nighttime activities, they’ll just keep to their hollow-tree nests for the course of the cosmological event.
Regardless of what the upcoming lunar eclipse does to flying squirrels’ evening plans, I feel lucky to have seen one in the flesh. As one North Carolina Wildlife Profiles report reads: “[The Southern flying squirrel] with the big saucerlike eyes is probably the most common mammal never seen by humans”.
Indeed, I believe I have possibly seen the rodentia equivalent of Sasquatch.
Many thanks to Cannon Beacon for allowing me to publish Local Wild entries on this blog.
McLendon, Russel. “A Few Interesting Facts About Flying Squirrels,” Narrative Content Group, 10Aug2017. www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/blogs/flying-squirrel-facts.
Earley, Lawrence; Kelly, Christine). “Southern Flying Squirrel,” North Carolina Wildlife Profiles, North Caroline Wildlife Resources Commission. Date unknown. www.ncwildlife.org/Portals/0/Learning/documents/Profiles/southflysquirrel.pdf.