SciTech

Meet a new species of flying squirrel, discovered by North Carolina researchers

UNC-Wilmington associate professor of biology Brian Arbogast and a Humboldt’s flying squirrel.
UNC-Wilmington associate professor of biology Brian Arbogast and a Humboldt’s flying squirrel. UNC-Wilmington

Researchers have discovered America’s newest mammal – a new type of flying squirrel.

A team led by UNC-Wilmington associate professor of biology Brian Arbogast has discovered “Humboldt’s flying squirrel” and published its findings in “Genetic Data Reveal a Cryptic Species of New World Flying Squirrel: Glaucomys oregonesis,” in the Journal of Mammology, according to the university. Their work also was featured on National Geographic’s website.

The new species was named for the famous geographer and naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt.

Arbogast and his team, including a former UNC-W grad student, Katelyn Schumacher, analyzed data on 185 flying squirrels across North America. There are 45 known species of flying squirrel in the world, and three species live in North America.

Analysis of the DNA showed that the northern flying squirrel is not one, but two, species.

One of the species is widespread across the continent. But the other, previously unrecognized, lives only along the Pacific Coast. The two species are reproductively isolated from one another, which means they may live in the same area, but they cannot interbreed.

But that doesn’t mean the squirrels aren’t similar. They look very much alike, Arbogast said.

“Humboldt’s flying squirrel is what scientists refer to as a ‘cryptic’ species,” Arbogast said. “Cryptic species are not easily recognized as being distinct based on physical appearance. While the new flying squirrel species may have some unique physical or behavioral traits that will be found upon further study, none have become obvious yet, even as the genetic data were revealed.”

Cryptic species are essentially “hidden in plain sight,” because they look so similar to the other species, which means they often are overlooked, hindering researchers’ ability to study and protect them, Arbogast said. But genetic research like that the UNCW team conducted can help identify and conserve those species.

“We often hear about species on the brink of extinction, a major problem we are facing today,” said Arbogast. “We are in an unusual period in human history – one of alarming loss of biodiversity on one hand, and one of incredible biodiversity discovery on the other.”

Thanks to modern genetic research that can be used along with natural history collections and “old-fashioned fieldwork,” biologists now are identifying new species almost every day, Arbogast said.

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

For more information on the discovery, go to www.uncw.edu/news/2017/06/uncw-associate-biology-professors-research-featured-by-national-geographic.html.

Abbie Bennett: 919-836-5768; @AbbieRBennett

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