How the new Humboldt’s flying squirrel dodged discovery

Scientists discover new species of flying squirrel in North America, despite it being studied it for over two centuries.

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The Humboldt's flying squirrel has been defined as a separate species

The Humboldt's flying squirrel has been defined as a separate species to the northern flying squirrel © Nick Kerhoulas

 

A flying squirrel which had been under observation by scientists for more than 200 years, has only recently been discovered to be a different species.

Scientists working in the Pacific coastal forests in the USA had believed the small mammal to be the northern flying squirrel but its DNA reveals it to be genetically different.

It will now be known Humboldt’s flying squirrel after the German geographer, naturalist and explorer, Alexander Von Humboldt, and by the scientific name of Glaucomys oregonensis.

"They look similar,” says Nick Kerhoulas, a biology instructor at Humboldt State University, “but Humboldt's flying squirrels are generally smaller and darker.”

“With new genetic information we know that there's no gene flow between the two," Kerhoulas states.

There are only three species of flying squirrel in North America, which are known as the New World flying squirrels and are all in the genus Glaucomys.

In contrast to their name, flying squirrels don’t actually fly but glide using a membrane between the wrists of their forearms and ankles of their hind legs.

 

Lead author Brian Arbogast with a Humboldt’s flying squirrel © Nick Kerhoulas

 

“Humboldt’s flying squirrel is what scientists refer to as a ‘cryptic’ species,” says Brian Arbogast, lead author of the paper and an associate professor at University of North Carolina Wilmington.

“While the new flying squirrel species may have some unique physical or behavioural traits that will be found upon further study, none have become obvious yet, even as the genetic data were revealed.”

However, sightings are a somewhat rare event due to the animal’s small physique and nocturnal lifestyle, though its large eyes help them to glide during the nighttime periods.     

 

Read the full paper in the Journal of Mammalogy

 

Read more wildlife news stories in BBC Wildlife Magazine

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