Logo: Gliding mammals of the world

The world’s gliding mammals are an extraordinary group of animals that have the ability to glide from tree to tree with seemingly effortless grace. There are more than 60 species of gliding mammals including the flying squirrels from Europe and North America, the scaly-tailed flying squirrels from central Africa and the gliding possums of Australia and New Guinea.

Flying Squirrels: Early observations

In 1766 Carl Linnaeus, the founder of modern scientific nomenclature, was the first to describe the Arrow-tailed Flying Squirrel Hylopetes sagitta as a squirrel in the genus Sciurus. Linnaeus cited Hans Johan Noordgreen, a Dutch collector living on Java, for the locality of the species and it seems certain that the specimens that Linnaeus described were sent or brought back to Sweden by Noordgreen. There are two original specimens, one now in the Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet in Stockholm and the other in the Evolutionsmuseet, University of Uppsala.

The Southern Flying Squirrel was one of the more curious animals depicted in the work of the Nuremberg miniaturist Johann Daniel Meyer. Between 1748 and 1756 he published his three volume work Angenehmer und nützlicher Zeit-vertreib mit Betrachtung curioser Vorstellungen allerhand kriechender, fliegender und schwimmender, auf dem Land und im Wasser sich befindender und nährender Thiere — ‘A pleasant and useful pastime of viewing with curiouser performances all kinds of crawling, flying and swimming animals, on land and in water’.

For some years, reports had come back of the Giant Flying Squirrels found in the East Indies. In 1766, the German zoologist and botanist Peter Simon Pallas referred to it in his Miscellanea Zoologica: Quibus novæ imprimis atque obscuræ animalium species describuntur et observationibus iconibusque illustrantur — ‘Miscellaneous zoological observations from which new, unique and obscure animal species are described with observations and peculiarities illustrated’. Pallas gave descriptions of several vertebrates new to science, including Sciurus petaurista or ‘Acrobatic Squirrel’. Pallas wrote:

An illustration from the collection of Carl Linnaeus of the Arrow-tailed Flying Squirrel Hylopetes sagitta
An illustration from the collection of Carl Linnaeus of the Arrow-tailed Flying Squirrel Hylopetes sagitta, labelled Le chat volant de la côte Malabaud.

This unique and, to this point, usually famous species among squirrels can be found at several zoos. Using its wide body and thick wing-flaps, which stretch between its front feet and its rear thighs, helping it to spread wide, transporting the animal beside and above the treetops, it moves from one tree to another, as if it is floating in the air. Sciuri volantis [‘flying squirrel’] is the name hitherto accepted for this little animal, which is commonly found in the northern Asian and American regions and described many times.

This squirrel, to which I now ascribe this accurate description, is not particularly similar to others (of its species); it has extended webbing between its feet, but, and most importantly, it is noteworthy in that, more than all others of its species, it can fly above, far and wide. It is very rare to come across one which is far from the leader of its group; and it is also known but uncommon to come upon them, among the leaves on an Indian Ocean island, where very few close observations have been made, and it is also very rare for these animals to live there.

An illustration of the Southern Flying Squirrel
An illustration of the Southern Flying Squirrel by the Nuremberg miniaturist, Johann Daniel Meyer published in 1756.

Pallas based his observations on collections he found in the Dutch museum and the writings of François Valentijn, a Dutch minister, naturalist and author, who had spent 16 years in the Dutch East Indies. In 1685, at the age of 19, Valentijn was employed by the Dutch East India Company as Minister to the East Indies, where he became a friend of the German naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumphius. He returned and lived in Holland for about 10 years before returning to the Indies in 1705 where he was to serve as Army Chaplain on an expedition in eastern Java. He finally returned to Holland where he published his Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indiën (Old and New East-India) (1724–26) a massive work of five parts published in eight volumes and containing over 1000 illustrations and including some of the most accurate maps of the Indies of the time.

Valentijn’s reputed ‘theft’ of the work of other scientists and writers and his passing it off as his own did not escape the notice of Peter Simon Pallas, who had a planned voyage to southern Africa and the East Indies which, to his dismay, did not eventuate.

The Southern Flying Squirrel from Die Saugthiere
The Southern Flying Squirrel from Die Saugthiere (The Mammals) by Johann Schreber, 1775.

Valentijn who, whatever defects he may have, has however many good talents — and his innate skills encourage my own efforts — omits to mention any actual sighting of this species of squirrel. Yet he delights in introducing it, however rambling or with minimal accurate detail, as it appears to be the most intelligent of the squirrels and he includes an illustrated account of this very rare animal. ... On [the island of] Gilolo he says, around the township of Dodingo, it is named the flying Civet. This vespertinal animal has wings stretched between its front and hind feet with which it moves from one tree to another. Furthermore they have a very long tail, very much like that of the Cercopithecus [the Egyptian long-tailed ape]. When these animals feel safe, their wings are not evident. ... It is barely fifty years since this species became known, for they are very wild and most timid. They have a reddish head with a mixture of dark-coloured hair. With their wings extended, and displaying their ‘raiment’ of hair, they scatter during the evening. Using their powerful teeth and with very little difficulty, they hide out each night in their wooden cave. By some it is called the flying Cercopithecus, but it is certainly considered to be in fact our flying squirrel.

An illustration of the Red Giant Flying Squirrel
An illustration of the Red Giant Flying Squirrel from Peter Simon Pallas’s Miscellanea Zoologica, 1766.

In 1774, the German naturalist Johann Christian Daniel Schreber began writing a multi-volume set of books on the world’s mammals entitled Die Säugethiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur mit Beschreibungen. This work proved important because many of the animals included were given a scientific name for the first time, following the binomial system which Carl Linnaeus had established in 1758. Schreber’s book included illustrations of ‘Sciuris volans’ (= Pteromys volans) and ‘Sciurus petaurista’ (= Petaurista petaurista) which had been described by Linnaeus and Pallas respectively.

In 1801, the English botanist and zoologist George Shaw made some detailed observations of the Siberian Flying Squirrel:

The Siberian Flying Squirrel
The Siberian Flying Squirrel from Shaw’s General Zoology or Systematic Natural History, 1801.

This highly elegant animal is the only flying squirrel yet discovered in Europe, where it is extremely rare, being found chiefly in the most northern regions, as in Finland, Lapland, &c. It also occurs in some districts of Poland. In many parts of Asia it is far more common, and abounds in the birch and pine woods of Siberia in particular ... The flying squirrel generally resides in the hollows of trees towards the upper part; preparing its nest of the finer mosses. It is a solitary animal, and is only seen in pairs during the breeding season. It rarely makes its appearance by day, emerging only at the commencement of twilight, when it may be seen climbing about the trees, and darting with great velocity from one to the other. The colour of its upper part so much resembles that of the pale silvery bark of the birch-trees it frequents, that it is by no means easy to distinguish it, while engaged in climbing about during its evening exercises ...

Random species

North Chinese Flying Squirrel / Aeretes melanopterus

North Chinese Flying Squirrel
Aeretes melanopterus

Yunnan Giant Flying Squirrel / Petaurista yunanensis

Yunnan Giant Flying Squirrel
Petaurista yunanensis

Vordermann’s Flying Squirrel / Petinomys vordermanni

Vordermann’s Flying Squirrel
Petinomys vordermanni

Gliding Mammals of the World provides, for the first time, a synthesis of all that is known about the biology of these intriguing mammals. It includes a brief description of each species, together with a distribution map and a beautiful full-color painting.

An introduction outlines the origins and biogeography of each group of gliding mammals and examines the incredible adaptations that allow them to launch themselves and glide from tree to tree.