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AMRI’s Kris Helgen on ‘one of strangest ways

A giant woolly flying squirrel — Eupetaurus nivamons — in China’s Yunnan province. (Quan Li © CC BY-NC),

John Kelly, Scientists identify two new species of a big, strange flying squirrel, The Washington Post, 11 April 2023

Scientists aren’t supposed to use words like “strange” or “strangest,” but Kristofer Helgen can’t help himself. After all, he says, the life of the woolly flying squirrel is “one of the strangest ways to be a mammal.”

Of that creature, a British taxonomist named Oldfield Thomas wrote in 1888 that “no zoologist has dared to describe it.”

Let’s try anyway. First of all, the woolly flying squirrel — Eupetaurus cinereus — is big: three feet from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail. It weighs up to five pounds. It has weird teeth. Its native habitat is forbidding: remote areas of the Himalayas.

For a long time, scientists weren’t sure any woolly flying squirrels were left on the planet.

“For most of the 20th century, it was not known whether it was even alive or not,” said Helgen, chief scientist and director of the Australian Museum Research Institute in Sydney. “It was thought extinct. No one was really looking for it.”

And then in the 1990s, a researcher named Peter Zahler from the Wildlife Conservation Society rediscovered it living in remote valleys in Pakistan.

Now the hunt was on to find more — and to see if Eupetaurus cinereus was alone, species-wise.

Having a living mystery animal saunter past you is a great way to discover a new species. But there are other ways. Helgen and Stephen M. Jackson pored through preserved specimens that had been collected in the wild and placed in museums around the world. They compared skins, skulls, teeth and penises. They extracted DNA to get the animals’ genetic signatures.

Meanwhile, researchers in China, including Quan Li, Xue-Long JiangTao WanXue-You LiFa-Hong YuGe Gao and Li-Kun He, were conducting their own investigations. Camera traps placed in the mountains were picking up woolly flying squirrels. The two teams decided to combine resources.

“It’s a story of international cooperation,” Helgen said.

The result was the identification of two new species of giant woolly flying squirrels, one in Tibet and one in Yunnan: Eupetaurus tibetensis and Eupetaurus nivamons. The scientists published their findings last year in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Said Helgen: “We went from one species, to two, to three.”

In many ways, these are like the flying squirrels that live in North American forests, just supersized. They have a big patagium, the parachute-like membrane that stretches from ankles to wrists.

“It’s a flying squirrel that lives in a bit of a more barren landscape,” Helgen said. “We think of the flying squirrel as a forest animal, gliding from tree to tree. These may glide more often from cliff top to cave mouth, over to lower ground or to lower slopes.”

How cool is that!

As for why it needs those unusual teeth, Helgen said, “The going theory is that this animal eats mostly pine needles. That’s a very, very strange thing for an animal to do.”

Pine needles are not very nutritious, and they’re full of noxious chemicals the tree puts out expressly to stop animals from eating them.

Said Helgen: “The fact that this thing has, over 10 million years, evolved this special capacity to make its living off needles is pretty extraordinary and a pretty cool adaptation on the roof of the world in the middle of nowhere.”

When I launched Squirrel Week in 2011, there were about 280 species of squirrel. Now the family Sciuridae boasts 311 living species. Why bother to keep adding to the list?

“I think it comes down to really fundamental principles about science and nature, including questions like, ‘How rich is life on Earth? How many species do we share this planet with as our home?’” Helgen said. “If we’re interested in those questions and answers, then we want to get to the bottom of it.”

That might be difficult with invertebrates at the bottom of the ocean and insects in the Amazon, but, Helgen said, “to still have two of the very largest squirrels in the world not getting their scientific names till the 2020s teaches us in a key way there’s much we don’t know about the natural world and how much there is for scientists to discover.”

Helgen was once the head of mammalogy at the Smithsonian, working alongside the late, famed squirrel expert Richard “Thor” Thorington at the National Museum of Natural History. In 2020, Helgen moved to Australia to take up his new job.

The irony is, Australia is one of the few places on the planet devoid of squirrels. That makes them an object of fascination for people from Down Under.

Said Helgen: “If you’re in Washington and you see some tourists staring at squirrels for hours, they’ll have an Australian accent.”

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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