Northern Flying Squirrel

The northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) is one of two species of the genus Glaucomys, the only flying squirrels found in North America. The other is the somewhat smaller southern flying squirrel (G. volans). The Northern flying squirrel is found in coniferous and mixed forests across the top of North America, from Alaska to Nova Scotia, south to North Carolina and west to northern California. Two subspecies are found in the southern Appalachians, the Carolina northern flying squirrel (G. s. coloratus), and the Virginia northern flying squirrel (G. s. fuscus), and these are endangered.

These strictly nocturnal, arboreal rodents have thick light brown or cinnamon fur on their upper body, and a furry membrane which extends between the front and rear leg and allows the animal to glide through the air. They are grayish on their flanks and whitish underneath. They have large eyes and a flat tail.

A major food source for the squirrels are mycorrhizal fungi (truffles) of various species, though they also eat lichens, mushrooms, all mast-crop nuts, tree sap, insects, carrion, bird eggs and nestlings, buds and flowers. The squirrels are able to locate truffles by olfaction, though they also seem to use cues such as the presence of coarse woody debris, indicating a decaying log, and spatial memory of locations where truffles were found in the past.

The northern flying squirrel nests in holes in trees, preferring large-diameter trunks and dead trees, and will also build outside leaf nests called “dreys.” They sometimes use cavities created by woodpeckers. Suitable nest sites tend to be more abundant in old-growth forests, and so do the squirrels, though harvested forests can be managed in ways that are likely to increase squirrel numbers. The squirrels move from nest to nest except when rearing their young. In all but the most severe weather conditions, the squirrels are active year-round, but in harsh winters in British Columbia they have a single activity period in the middle of the night.

Home ranges are up to 40,000 square meters for females and 50 percent higher for males.

The gliding distance of the tends to be between 5 and 25 meters, though glides of up to 45 m and longer have been observed. Average glides are about 5 m less for females than for males. Glide angle has been measured at 26.8 degrees and glide ratio at 1.98. Glides have some tendency to be with the slope of terrain, allowing a longer glide.

In the Pacific Northwest, the squirrels breed once per year, in May or June. In southern Ontario, evidence of polyestrus behaviour has been recorded recently.

Northern flying squirrels, along with pine squirrels, are an important prey species for the endangered Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis). They also disseminate spores of the ectomycorrhizal fungi that they eat, and these are essential to many species of conifer and some deciduous trees.

Other predators include various owls, especially the Great Horned Owl, hawks, martens, lynx and red fox.