By Jen Knight
As winter plods on, many Western Carolinians are snuggling together on the couch, binge-watching TV and fighting over the throw blanket. Cuddling, or using the body heat of another in conjunction with your own, is a strategy endorsed by polar survival experts, the emperor penguins and, more locally, flying squirrels. North Carolina boasts two species of flying squirrel: the common southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans) and the endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel (G. sabrinus coloratus).
Smaller animals have a harder time maintaining body heat as the temperature dips and often compensate by slowing down their bodies to conserve energy in colder months. However, these diminutive gliders don’t hibernate, and stay active through winter, feasting on lichen, mushrooms, nuts and seeds. Flying squirrels can conserve energy and stay warm by sharing their nests with as many as ten other squirrels. Researchers have recorded temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in these winter dens!
This behavioral adaptation has contributed to the success of northern flying squirrels (Glaucomys sabrinus), whose range extends from Alaska to Nova Scotia. Here in the Blue Ridge, “Carolina northern flyers are found above 4,500 feet elevation and often higher on south-facing slopes,” says Christine Kelly, a wildlife diversity biologist for the NC Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC). Why so high? This federally listed subspecies is a leftover of the last ice age. Glaciers covered much of North America and forced higher-latitude wildlife and plants farther south. As temperatures rose and the glaciers receded, most cold climate species slowly moved back north, but here in the mountains they had another option: moving up.
As a result, Southern Appalachian mountaintops became islands of biodiversity typically found in the boreal forests farther north. These unique habitats are home to other rare species like the Northern Saw-whet Owl and Red Crossbill who depend on the red spruce found at these high elevations. Unfortunately, red spruce forests were dramatically diminished during heavy logging and fires in the early 20th century. “The forest has recovered in some areas, but is not nearly as extensive or high quality as it once was,” says Kelly. “As a result, the northern flyer’s range in NC was reduced. Looking ahead, we are concerned about climate change’s impacts on their high-elevation forest habitats.”
Fortunately for the Carolina flyers, programs like Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative are working to restore these habitats through plantings and education. “One bit of good news,” according to Kelly, “is that red spruce isn’t limited to only moving up the mountain; we see it moving to different areas and down streams’ drainages.” Carolina flyers make their own contribution to habitat renewal by spreading the spores of their favorite mushrooms—truffles— in their waste.
The NCWRC and its partners are currently focusing their efforts in the Pisgah National Forest, but you don’t need your hiking boots to encounter the smaller and more common southern flying squirrel, which is found throughout the eastern US. Like their rare “cousins,” southern flyers are omnivores who supplement their diet of nuts with insects, bird eggs and even nestlings. Both “flyers” are actually accomplished gliders who use the large flap of skin between their front and back legs to soar distances over a hundred feet. Using their flattened tails as a rudder, they can even make 90-degree turns in mid-air to reach a den or landing site!
WNC homeowners can contribute to the conservation of these fascinating critters by keeping cats indoors and avoiding the use of glue traps. If you suspect flyers in your attic, an experienced wildlife damage control agent can advise you on how to evict the animals and block them from re-entry.
Jen Knight serves on the development committee of the Appalachian Wildlife Refuge (AppalachianWild.org) and is the co-education director and senior naturalist at the Balsam Mountain Trust (BalsamMountainTrust.org).