Ever since Icarus took to the skies on wings fashioned by his father Daedalus, man has experimented with flying. While man had to rely on machines to get him airborne, nature made it simple for birds by endowing them with wings. Sure birds fly. But what about other creatures, do they fly too? What about the squirrel? Can it scamper on tree tops and then fly away? If you thought no, then it’s time we introduce you to the Giant Indian Flying Squirrel.
Also known as the large brown flying squirrel, the giant Indian flying squirrel is scientifically known as Petaurista phillippensis meaning very large Asiatic flying squirrel. It belongs to the mammal family of true squirrels (Sciuridae) which include ground squirrels, marmots and chipmunks. It belongs to the order Rodentia or gnawing animals. So how come they fly? Actually, they don’t fly but rather move with gliding leaps of up to 400 metres using parachute-like folds of skin along the sides of the body. Their limbs are connected by a membrane or parachute and they are less agile as compared to ordinary squirrels.
The flying squirrel is not only arboreal but also nocturnal, emerging from its home (tree hole) in the night and returning before dawn. As they often fly in pitch darkness, they have been labelled ‘ghosts’ by forest dwellers. Occasionally, they wander near the dining area of forest bungalows in search of food. In villages around the Western Ghats, they can be found feeding on the fruits of the Ficus tree.
This writer was fortunate enough to see one of them in the wild. I was a volunteer for a wild life survey in the Bandipur forest, Karnataka. a jeep dropped us at 5.30 am into the core forest area in order to estimate the herbivorous animal population. By 6 am, our work commenced amid the cool early morning breeze. By dawn, a faint light started to spread over the sky and the tree canopy, revealing muddy forest paths.
Then, something strange happened. A large, dark creature emerging from the top of the trees glided with its wings spread and crossed the forest path. It continued to glide gracefully in the air just above our heads like a parachute with no wing beats or sounds. As it was much bigger than any of the forest raptors or large flying bats, had membranes across the limbs and long tail portions, I quickly identified it as the giant Indian flying squirrel. Soon it steered its body a little in flight, changed its gliding angle and landed smoothly and noiselessly on the bottom portion of the tree, closing its ‘parachute’. It then started climbing and hopping up in quick jerks along the tree bark into the green foliage. After some time, we could see a movement in the crown of the tree and then the squirrel sailed into another tree. Naturally, this was one of the best experiences in the wild — witnessing this rare spectacle. the flying squirrel is rarely seen and rarely has it been captured on film.
Flying squirrels are 3-3 1/2 feet in length, weigh around two kgs, have night vision, with wide eyes that get illuminated in torch light and their bushy tails are up to two feet long. They are found in south and south-east Asia. In south India, they are found all along the Sahyadris, Western Ghats and Nilgiris. Some common places include Mudhumalai, Bandipur, Nagarahole, Dandeli, K Gudi, Neliyampathy, Kevdi and Baroda. They feed on Ficus fruits, nuts, seeds, tree sap, gums, leaves, shoots and buds and like the ordinary squirrel, bite and feed on tree barks for lichens and even insects.
Wild life photographers always find it a challenge to photograph the flying squirrel in action. For, even though the flying squirrel gives itself away through its repeated calling, it is difficult to locate the exact spot.