• The red and white giant flying squirrel (Petaurista alborufus) is an Asian species of flying squirrel that is common in nine provinces of south and central China. Its habitats are forests, including montane forests, coniferous forests, and hardwood forests, as well as limestone cliffs. Other species of flying squirrels can be found around the world, including North America and Europe, though most are found in India and Asia.

    Like all flying squirrels, the red and white giant flying squirrel is primarily nocturnal. One of its most distinctive physical characteristics is its large eyes, which help it to see at night. It is one of the largest species of flying squirrel and can grow up to a meter in length and weigh as much as three pounds. 

    Contrary to what the name suggests, red and white giant flying squirrels–like all flying squirrels−do not truly fly. Instead they glide, sometimes as far as 450 meters (1,450 feet). All flying squirrels accomplish this feat using a loose membrane of skin and muscle called a patagium that stretches between the front and back legs. Unlike airplane wings or bird wings, the patagia of flying squirrels has an almost square shape. To glide, flying squirrels leap into the air and then extend their limbs, allowing the patagia to produce lift and keep them aloft. They can turn in mid-glide by lowering an arm. Their ability to glide enables flying squirrels to reach trees and branches that are out of simple leaping range.

    1. Flying squirrels glide rather than fly. How is gliding different from flying?

      True flight requires some kind of power during flight, such as a plane’s engine or the flapping of a bird’s wings. Gliding, on the other hand, relies solely on momentum. 

    2. Scientists at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History studied various types of flying squirrels using a wind tunnel. Why might they want to know more about exactly how these animals glide?

      Besides just wanting to learn more about flying squirrels, the scientists were also interested in how what they learn might be applied to flying objects that humans engineer, such as drones. The square shape of their “wings” are different from how humans have engineered flying objects, so there may be more to learn from them.

    3. Look at the photo of the red and white giant flying squirrel. What might make this animal a good “ambassador” for biodiversity?

      Answers will vary. With their large eyes and fur, most humans would consider flying squirrels “cute.” This helps to raise awareness and interest. Flying squirrels also have a unique adaptation as “flying” mammals, which can help make the case for the importance of biodiversity.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    coniferous forest Noun

    land covered by trees with thin needles instead of flat leaves.

    glide Verb

    to move smoothly and seemingly without effort.

    habitat Noun

    environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    hardwood Noun

    the strong, dense wood, of flowering trees.

    lift Noun

    force acting to lift an object upward.

    montane Adjective

    natural region defined by upland slopes and large conifers.

    nocturnal Adjective

    active at night.

    patagium Noun

    section of skin linking the forelimbs and hind limbs of some animals, allowing them to make long, gliding leaps.