Look! It’s that elusive Small Flying Squirrel

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pix (1)One January night this year, researchers Ranil Nanayakkara, Nilantha Vishvanath and Taraka Kusuminda were walking along the Laggala – Illukkumbura road studying the bats, tarantulas and other nocturnal creatures in Knuckles. Scanning the canopy of trees along the road with their powerful flashlights, they suddenly spotted an ‘eye reflection’.

Their first thought was that it could be a Loris but the creature had a longer tail like a Giant Squirrel. Luckily it was not very high in the canopy, so they could observe it closely and then one of them spotted the skinny membrane extending from its sides, which indicated that it was a Flying Squirrel.

Sri Lanka is home to two Flying Squirrel species. As the creature was having a leisurely dinner, the researchers had ample time, nearly 30 minutes to observe it. When stationary, including when feeding, the Flying Squirrel holds its tail above its body. They knew this to be a unique feature and other features too matched an elusive creature that had not been directly observed for the last 78 years.
“We were delighted to identify the Flying Squirrel in front of us as the rare Small Flying Squirrel based on features observed in the field,” said Ranil Nanayakkara. The Small Flying Squirrel (Petinomysfuscocapillus) is known as ‘Heen hambawa’ in Sinhala. It is smaller than its cousin, the Giant Flying Squirrel (Petauristaphilippensis) as the name implies and has different characteristics. The species identification was confirmed using the Manual of Mammals of Sri Lanka by W.W.A Phillip and also with the specimens of both Flying Squirrels in National Museum of Sri Lanka.

The Small Flying Squirrel (Petinomysfuscocapillus) is an elusive creature that has not been physically observed by researchers since last reported by W.W.A. Phillips in 1935. According to Philip this squirrel’s home range is the wet and intermediate zones of the island. In 2007, camera traps used in a different study had captured images of the Small Flying Squirrel in Sinharaja but no researcher had observed them directly in their natural setting.

Flying squirrels are rodents like all squirrels, and feed on fruits and nuts. They have large flaps of skin between the front and rear legs called patagium, which they use like a parachute to ‘glide’ from tree to tree. They take a spread-eagled position to trap air that helps them ‘glide’. Though they do not actually fly like birds or bats, they have great skill in ‘gliding’ short distances. The Small Flying Squirrel is a nocturnal animal found in Sri Lanka and India.

The research paper on their recent observation was published as a short communication on TAPROBANICA. The team also managed to capture the first colour photos of the elusive creature.

Published on SundayTimes on 23.06.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130623/plus/look-its-that-elusive-small-flying-squirrel-49635.html

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