Tibetan woolly flying squirrel. (Jackson, S. and illustrated by Schouten, P.)
Tibetan woolly flying squirrel. (Jackson, S. and illustrated by Schouten, P.)

2 new species of Himalayan gigantic woolly flying squirrels discovered

They have been named Tibetan woolly flying squirrel (Eupetaurus tibetensis) and Yunnan woolly flying squirrel (Eupetaurus nivamons) and their details published in Oxford Academic’s Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society on May 31
By Jayashree Nandi
UPDATED ON JUN 09, 2021 07:19 PM IST

Two gigantic woolly flying squirrel species from the high Himalayas were discovered last month by scientists from Australia and China.

Parts of the Indian Himalayas, specially around Sikkim, may be home to these extremely rare gliding mammals. According to the Australian Museum, whose scientists were part of the team that discovered the new species, the woolly flying squirrels could be over 3-feet-long and weigh over 2.5kg.

Scientists have known of the woolly flying squirrel, Eupetaurus cinereus, which is among the rarest and least studied mammals in the world, for a long time. For much of the 20th century, it was thought to be extinct, until it was rediscovered in 1994 in northern Pakistan.

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But after a careful review of museum specimens and published records of Eupetaurus, scientists found that the genus occurs in three distinct regions in the Himalayas--northern Pakistan and north-western India particularly Uttarakhand; south-central Tibet, northern Sikkim and western Bhutan; and north-western Yunnan, China. Genetic and morphological comparisons of these specimens also revealed that they are distinct species, two of which were discovered now and their details published in Oxford Academic’s Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society on May 31. They have been named Tibetan woolly flying squirrel (Eupetaurus tibetensis) and Yunnan woolly flying squirrel (Eupetaurus nivamons).

“These are some of the largest squirrels in the world, so it is pretty surprising that it has taken until 2021 for them to get their scientific names…the two new species are gorgeous, soft-furred squirrels that are genetically and anatomically very different from all other squirrels. And they live on top of the world—in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau,” Australian Museum Chief Scientist Professor Kristofer Helgen said in a press statement issued by the Australian Museum.

Research associate Stephen Jackson said the squirrels live at altitudes up to 4,800m (or 15,700 feet, more than half the height of Mt Everest) largely in areas uninhabited by people, and are some of the least known animals in the world, with only a handful of people having seen the mammal glide.

“At over one metre in length with a thick pelt of silky fur, the squirrel is one of the largest in the world. It is a nocturnal animal, with a huge furry tail like a fox,” Jackson said in the press statement.

According to the research paper, Eupetaurus cinereus is threatened by habitat loss, owing to large-scale clear cutting of forests, particularly the destruction of high-elevation pine woodlands. It is also threatened to a lesser extent by the expansion of agriculture, small-scale logging, infrastructure development and human settlements. “The recent discovery of the species in the state of Uttarakhand in north-western India (Pal et al., 2018, 2020) demonstrates that it might have a considerably wider distribution than previously realized and indicates that protection and conservation in India is also fundamental for the long-term survival of E. cinereus,” the paper states.

“The northeastern Himalayas in India are a biodiversity hotspot. There are several species of flying squirrels in the northeastern Himalayas. The Tibetan woolly flying squirrel prefers snow-covered regions and grasslands, but there are many others that are found in forests. The flying squirrels of the northeast vary widely in size from a few centimetres to 4.5 to 5 feet. Scientists knew of the woolly flying squirrel in the northeast, but now, with a lot of data, they have found that it is distinct from the other species--Yunnan woolly flying squirrel. The discovery of the new species is of immense evolutionary significance, because the squirrels’ bodies have adapted to living in very high-altitude areas and their teeth can grind. They have evolved to sustain themselves in grasslands. There is very little research on flying squirrels. We hope to study them properly,” said Sameer Bajaru, small mammal expert at Bombay Natural History Society.

“These squirrels don’t fly. They glide. When they jump from one tree to another, they spread their entire body and tail. They have patagium, a membrane between the forelimbs and hindlimbs which helps them glide,” he added.

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