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Minnesota researchers to study how climate change affects flying squirrels

The Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth wants to learn the impact of the animals' further trek northward.

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Northern flying squirrels perch on a tree.
Courtesy photo / Natural Resources Research Institute

DULUTH — Michael Joyce has been interested in flying squirrels since childhood and is living out a dream, of sorts, being able to study them.

And the wildlife ecologist is finding the tiny, nocturnal mammals are possibly being affected by climate change, like many other animals, plants and species.

Cold winter temperatures typically dictate how far north they can go, Joyce said.

“With warming trends, it’s allowed them to push farther north,” he added.

What’s surprising is how fast the southern species are moving northward, up to about 12 miles a year, according to studies done in Ontario. That’s a long distance for such a small animal, Joyce said.

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He and his team with the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth surveyed small mammals in northern Minnesota forests in 2020 and did not capture the expected northern flying squirrel.

Instead, they found only the southern flying squirrel, even though historical data points to the area as being its northern counterpart’s territory.

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A southern flying squirrel clings to the top of a den box.
Courtesy: Natural Resources Research Institute

While studies in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario have documented flying squirrel shifts due to climate change, there’s no data on where each species currently lives in Minnesota.

Joyce is hoping to answer that question with new research.

The NRRI approved $7,500 for a pilot study on flying squirrels in Northern Minnesota. Now finished, Joyce and his team will design a significant research program and seek funding with regional agency partners.

Night gliders

Flying squirrels are known for their large, dark eyes, which are very well adapted to seeing at night, Joyce said.

That’s when they come out to feed, which is why few people see them unless they have bird feeders that the squirrels visit.

Both varieties have gray-brown fur on their back and white fur on their belly, but the northern’s belly also has gray fur with the white.

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The biggest misconception about flying squirrels is that they fly. They have what’s called a patagium, or skin membrane, extending from the front to the hind feet that allows them to glide, Joyce said.

They can glide 20 to 30 feet from one tree canopy to another, but can go even farther in some cases.

“You can imagine if you're a predator chasing a flying squirrel up the tree, the second it gets high enough, they glide away,” he said.

Joyce said he’s not aware of Southern Flying squirrels ever being detected in North or South Dakota.

Northwestern Minnesota is about the farthest west they go. The farthest north they’ve been found is near Bemidji, he said.

When you get into the prairie where forest cover is not quite as consistent, you stop seeing them, Joyce said.

Priorities for the research include determining exactly where each species lives now and how quickly their range is expanding, and whether their different eating habits could impact the forest ecosystem.

“Not every change due to climate change is going to have a severe negative consequence,” he said, but documenting what's going on is the only way to assess possible repercussions.

Related Topics: SCIENCE AND NATURE
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