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Flying Squirrel: Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

The Flying Squirrel, a name that conjures images of small, furry creatures soaring through the forest canopy, represents over 50 species of squirrels capable of gliding flight. Unlike birds or bats, flying squirrels do not actually fly but glide using a membrane called a patagium, which stretches between their front and hind legs.

These enchanting mammals have fascinated people for centuries with their nocturnal antics and incredible aerial abilities. In this article, we delve into the world of flying squirrels, exploring their classification, physical characteristics, habitats, behaviors, and the conservation efforts aimed at ensuring their survival.

Join us as we embark on a journey to uncover the secrets of these elusive gliders of the night sky.

The Flying Squirrel at a Glance


Class:Mammalia (Mammals)
Genus:Varies (e.g., Glaucomys, Pteromys)
Species:Varies (e.g., Glaucomys volans, Pteromys volans)

Essential Information

Average Size:Head to Body: 12-35 cm (4.7-13.8 inches), Tail: 10-24 cm (3.9-9.4 inches)
Average Weight:110-230 g (3.9-8.1 oz)
Average Lifespan:4-6 years in the wild, up to 15 years in captivity
Geographical Range:North America, Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa
Conservation Status:Varies by species; ranges from Least Concern to Endangered (IUCN Red List)

Species and Subspecies

Flying squirrels are divided into two main genera: Glaucomys in North America (e.g., the Northern Flying Squirrel, Glaucomys sabrinus, and the Southern Flying Squirrel, Glaucomys volans) and Pteromys in Eurasia (e.g., the Siberian Flying Squirrel, Pteromys volans). There are over 50 species spread across these and other genera, each adapted to its specific environment.

Key differences among species can include size, coloration, and habitat preferences. For example, the Northern Flying Squirrel is larger than the Southern Flying Squirrel and prefers coniferous forests, while the Southern species is more common in deciduous forests.

The Siberian Flying Squirrel, found in parts of Europe and Asia, is noted for its large eyes and grey fur, distinguishing it from its American counterparts.

Subspecies variation often reflects geographic distribution and genetic diversity within a species. For example, the Northern Flying Squirrel has several recognized subspecies that vary slightly in size and coloration depending on their range. These subspecies adaptations highlight the flying squirrel’s ability to occupy a wide range of forested environments.

Southern flying squirrel
Southern flying squirrel


Flying squirrels are characterized by their small to medium size, soft fur, and large, expressive eyes adapted for their nocturnal lifestyle. Their most distinctive feature is the patagium, a furry, parachute-like membrane that stretches from the wrist of the front leg to the ankle of the hind leg, enabling their gliding flight.

The tail is flat and acts as a rudder, helping to stabilize and steer during glides. Fur color varies among species and can range from gray to brown, with some species having white or cream-colored underbellies. This variation in coloration often serves as camouflage against predators.

Adult flying squirrels typically measure from 12 to 35 cm (4.7 to 13.8 inches) in head-to-body length, with a tail length of 10 to 24 cm (3.9 to 9.4 inches). They weigh between 110 to 230 grams (3.9 to 8.1 ounces). Sexual dimorphism is minimal, making it difficult to distinguish males from females based on size or appearance alone.

Habitat and Distribution

Flying squirrels inhabit a wide range of forested environments, from the boreal forests of North America and Eurasia to the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia. They are arboreal, spending most of their lives in trees, where they nest, feed, and glide from tree to tree.

The specific habitat preferences can vary significantly among the different species. For example, the Northern Flying Squirrel prefers dense coniferous forests with a rich understory, while the Southern Flying Squirrel is more commonly found in mixed deciduous forests.

Their geographical range is extensive, with species found in North America, Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa. The adaptability of flying squirrels to different forest types has allowed them to occupy a broad range of environments, from cold northern latitudes to warm tropical regions.

Southern flying squirrel
Southern flying squirrel


Flying squirrels are primarily nocturnal, emerging at dusk to forage and glide. They are known for their social behavior, often nesting together in groups, especially during the cold months, to conserve body heat. Despite their social nature, flying squirrels can be territorial about their nesting sites.

Gliding is the most remarkable aspect of their behavior, allowing them to escape predators and move between food sources efficiently. They launch themselves from a high point, spreading their limbs to stretch the patagium and glide through the air, controlling their direction and speed with their tail and body posture. Glides can cover distances of up to 90 meters (295 feet), though most are much shorter.

Communication among flying squirrels includes a range of vocalizations, such as chirps and squeaks, and scent marking. These vocalizations serve various purposes, including signaling alarm, coordinating social interactions, and facilitating mating.

Scent marking is used to establish territory and communicate reproductive status. Their nocturnal nature and reliance on vocalization and scent marking for communication underscore their adaptation to life in the dark forest canopy.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Flying squirrels have a varied diet that reflects their adaptability to different forest environments. They are primarily omnivorous, feeding on a mix of plant and animal materials.

Their diet includes seeds, nuts, fruits, leaves, and buds, as well as insects, spiders, bird eggs, and occasionally small birds or rodents. This diverse diet helps flying squirrels take advantage of the seasonal availability of food sources in their forest habitats.

Their feeding behavior is characterized by foraging both in trees and on the ground, although they prefer to stay aloft where it’s safer from predators.

Flying squirrels have cheek pouches, allowing them to carry food back to their nests for consumption or storage. They are also known to visit bird feeders, especially in areas where their natural habitats overlap with human residences.


Flying squirrels face predation from a variety of animals. Their main predators include owls, hawks, snakes, and mammals such as martens, foxes, and domestic cats. Their nocturnal habits help reduce the risk from diurnal predators, but they remain vulnerable to nocturnal hunters, particularly owls, which can silently swoop down on them.

To evade predators, flying squirrels rely on their gliding ability, which allows for quick and agile escape. Their cryptic coloration also provides camouflage against the bark and leaves of trees, helping them to remain unseen by predators and humans alike.

Virginia northern flying squirrel
Virginia northern flying squirrel

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Flying squirrels typically have one or two breeding seasons per year, depending on the species and the climate of their habitat. In temperate regions, they usually breed in early spring and sometimes again in summer, while in tropical regions, the breeding cycle may not be as strictly defined.

After a gestation period of about 40 days, female flying squirrels give birth to 2 to 7 offspring. The young are born blind, hairless, and completely dependent on their mother. They are cared for in a nest, often located in the hollow of a tree or a nest box if in a suburban area. The nest is usually lined with soft materials like leaves, fur, and feathers for insulation and comfort.

The young squirrels develop quickly, opening their eyes after about a month and starting to venture outside the nest shortly thereafter. They begin to practice gliding at 5 to 6 weeks old and are weaned by two months. Flying squirrels reach sexual maturity at about one year of age.

The life cycle of flying squirrels, from birth through maturity, highlights their remarkable adaptability and the importance of parental care in ensuring the survival of the next generation. The care provided by the mother, including the selection of a safe nest site and the nurturing of her young, is crucial for the development of the offspring’s gliding skills and survival strategies.

Conservation and Threats

The conservation status of flying squirrels varies significantly among species. While many species are classified as “Least Concern” by the IUCN Red List, certain species, such as the San Bernardino Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus californicus) in North America and the Red and White Giant Flying Squirrel (Petaurista alborufus) in Asia, face more significant threats and have declining populations.

The primary threats to flying squirrels include habitat loss due to logging, agriculture, urbanization, and climate change, which can alter the forests they depend on for food and shelter.

Conservation efforts for flying squirrels involve habitat protection and restoration, research to better understand their ecology and needs, and public education to raise awareness about their role in forest ecosystems.

In some areas, nest boxes are installed to provide additional nesting sites, especially where natural cavities are scarce. These efforts aim to mitigate the impacts of habitat loss and ensure the survival of flying squirrel populations.

Fun Facts

  1. Impressive Gliders: Flying squirrels can glide for distances of over 150 feet (45 meters), using their tail as a rudder to steer and their patagium to control speed and direction.
  2. Night Vision: Their large eyes are adapted for night vision, helping them navigate and forage in the dark.
  3. Social Creatures: Unlike many squirrel species, flying squirrels are quite social and often nest in groups, especially in colder weather, to keep warm.
  4. Not Just Tree Dwellers: Some species of flying squirrels, like the Northern Flying Squirrel, are known to forage on the ground, showing their adaptability to different environments.
  5. Longevity in Captivity: While wild flying squirrels live about 4-6 years, in captivity, they can live up to 15 years with proper care.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do flying squirrels eat?

Flying squirrels are omnivores, eating a variety of foods including seeds, nuts, fruits, insects, and occasionally bird eggs or small birds.

Can flying squirrels actually fly?

No, flying squirrels glide rather than fly. They use a skin membrane stretched between their limbs to glide from tree to tree.

Where can you find flying squirrels?

Flying squirrels are found in forests across North America, Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, preferring wooded areas with plenty of trees for gliding.

How do flying squirrels glide?

They leap into the air and spread their limbs to stretch the patagium into a square-like shape, using their tail to steer and stabilize during the glide.

Are flying squirrels endangered?

The conservation status of flying squirrels varies by species. While many are not currently endangered, some species face significant threats from habitat loss and fragmentation.

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