Discovery of 2 new species of woolly flying squirrels
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- Two new species of flying squirrel discovered in the Himalayas. These are some of the largest squirrels in the world. They are actually two different species and live thousands of kilometers apart on the roof of the world.
- New species are distinct ones and have been named the Tibetan Woolly Flying Squirrel (Eupetaurus Tibetensis) and the Yunnan Woolly Flying Squirrel (Eupetaurus Nivamons)
- Tibetan ones live at the crossing where India, Bhutan, and Tibet meet. Parts of the Indian Himalayas around Sikkim and Uttarakhand may be home to these animals. They might also be found in south-central Tibet and western Bhutan.
- Yunnan species live thousands of kilometers to the east, in the Yunnan Province of southwestern China. Most live in north-western Yunnan.
- Sightings of two comparatively big animals have gone unreported and show how little we know about our natural world. They are comparatively huge animals and it is unusual that it took till 2021 for them to be discovered and scientifically named. Scientists will now try and learn more about their lives.
The team of scientists
- An international team of researchers from Australia and China discovered the species. The team was led by Australian Museum Chief Scientist Professor Kristofer Helgen and helped by Research Associate Dr. Stephen Jackson and Chinese scientists Professor Xue-Long Jiang and Dr. Quan Li
- This time around scientists used available museum specimens of woolly flying squirrels and data from field expeditions. The team confirmed that these huge, fluffy squirrels form three widely separated populations, two of which are the new discoveries.
- Their findings were published on 31st of March 2021 in the Oxford Academic’s Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society
- First discovered by zoologist Oldfield Thomas and named Eupetaurus Cinereus in 1888, the woolly squirrels live inside rocky habitats that are remote and uninhabited.
- These squirrels were thought to be extinct between 1924 and 1994 until it was rediscovered in northern Pakistan by Peter Zahler of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
- Though known to scientists and first named almost 130 years, until now it was believed to be a single rare species living largely in the remote valleys of Pakistan.
Habitat and lifestyle
- These house cat-sized animals prefer the night. They have greyish brown fur that blends into the rocks making them hard to spot. This is which is why few scientists have actually seen the animal in the wild.
- They live at elevations of more than 15,000 feet and are one of the least known mammals on Earth.
- Around 1 meter in length and weighing around 2.5 kgs they have a thick hide of silky fur and a huge furry tail like a fox, it is one of the largest squirrels in the world.
- They usually stick to large boulders and caves since the regions they survive have few trees that provide protection from predators and heavy winds.
- A secretive species about which little is known except that they have highly-specialized teeth and feed on pine needles and juniper leaves, a very unusual diet, and hide/ rest in rocky crevices
- A highly developed sense of smell allows them to easily find food at night. Long teeth are jagged and are used to grind waxy leaves to obtain nutrition
Flying squirrels are rodents
- Squirrels are actually rodents and are mammals identified by a single pair of continuously growing teeth called incisors in both the upper and lower jaws. About 40% of all mammals are rodents.
- Rodents share several features including body shape and structure. They are small animals with strong bodies and long tails.
- They use their sharp incisors to gnaw food, dig burrows, and defend themselves. They feed on seeds or other plant material, but some have more varied diets.
Anatomy and flight
- Flying squirrels are one of 50 odd species of squirrels. They cannot fly in the same way as birds or bats. They glide from one tree to another and between rocks and cliffs using skin stretched between their front and hind legs.
- During flight, Patagium, a furry, parachute-like skin membrane that stretches from wrist to ankle aids them. They are able to direct and control their glide path with their limbs and their long tail. Their long, fluffy tails, often as long as the body itself, act as a rudder
- Their body structure is very similar to other squirrels but also has a number of changes in structure, function, or behavior developed over time which improved its chance of survival in such harsh environments.
- To suit their habitat; their limb bones are longer and their hand bones, foot bones, and vertebrae are shorter. Their tails also function as an umbrella during a sudden downpour. The rodent’s body size and their dense, plush fur preserve heat in the freezing mountains.
- Molecular studies to study their genetics have shown that flying squirrels originated some 18–20 million years ago
- The young are born in a nest and are hairless and helpless at birth. Their internal organs are visible through their skin
- While females care and suckle the males do not join in nurturing their young ones
- By the fifth week, the young are able to practice their leaping and gliding skills. By the tenth week having perfected their gliding, they are ready to leave the nest
- They live up to 6 years in the wild but flying squirrels can live up to fifteen years in zoos. The mortality rate is high in young ones due to predators and diseases