Flying Squirrel Species Discovered By Scientists

Posted: Jun 7 2017, 6:55am CDT | by , in News | Latest Science News

Flying Squirrel Species Discovered by Scientists
Humboldt's flying squirrel. Credit: Nick Kerhoulas

Newly discovered species is the third known flying squirrel of North America

A new species of flying squirrel has been discovered in the Pacific coast region of North America. With the discovery, the total number of flying squirrels in North America has increased to three. The new species helps solve a longstanding evolutionary mystery as well.

Dubbed Humboldt’s flying squirrel or Glaucomys oregonensis, the newfound species has long been mistaken for other flying squirrel in the region. Only recently, it has been identified as a new, separate species.

“For 200 years we thought we had only had one species of flying squirrel in the Northwest – until we looked at the nuclear genome, in addition to mitochondrial DNA, for the first time.” Study co-author Jim Kenagy, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington said in a statement.

Flying squirrels can be found in California and the coastal Pacific Northwest, but they were always considered same and were collectively known as northern flying squirrels. When researchers analyzed the DNA of 185 flying squirrels from across North America, it confirmed that the northern flying squirrel is actually two distinct species – one that is widespread across Canada and northern United States and a previously unrecognized species that only occurs along the Pacific Coast.

The most surprising thing was the fact that no gene flow occurred between the Pacific coast and North American flying squirrels despite both are found together at same places within some parts. Researchers believe that squirrels that coexisted in the region were not interbreeding.

"It was a surprising discovery," said Kenagy. "We were interested in the genetic structure of small mammals throughout the Pacific Northwest, and the fact that in other cases we were aware that two different species had evolved in Eastern and Western Washington."

Flying squirrels do not actually fly. The can jump off trees and glide as far as 300 feet through the air. They use this technique to protect themselves from potential predators. Flying squirrels have skin flaps between their front and back legs. Their feather-like tail provides extra lift and also helps in steering.

The DNA analysis reveals that Humboldt's flying squirrel is a cryptic species – animals that look similar but are genetically quite distinct. The new species also marks the discovery of Earth’s 45th known flying squirrels.

Because cryptic species are not easily recognized as being distinct on the basis of their physical appearance, their population largely remains unknown. That makes it harder to determine their status. Thanks to genetic studies, researchers are now able to recognize and classify the species hidden in plain sight.

“We often hear about the species on the brink of extinction, a major problem we are facing today. However, thanks to modern genetic approaches, strong natural history collections and old-fashioned fieldwork, biologists are identifying new species every day,” said study leader Brian Arbogast, a biologist at the University of North Carolina

“Countering biodiversity loss and speeding up the rate at which we catalogue new biodiversity both rely on education, well-trained scientists and a commitment to fund this kind of research."

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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