FAMILY: Sciuridae

DESCRIPTION: One of two subspecies of Appalachian flying squirrel, the West Virginia northern flying squirrel has a dense, silky, reddish brown fur coat with a grayish white underside. West Virginia northern flying squirrels can also be identified by their long whiskers, which are common to nocturnal animals. The squirrels' distinctive, sail-like patagia (folds of skin between the wrists and ankles) and long, flattened, rudder-esque tails are useful when it comes to gliding through the forest canopy. Adults measure 10 to 12 inches in length and weigh between three and five ounces.

HABITAT: West Virginia northern flying squirrels live in high-elevation hardwood forests consisting of mature red spruce, fir, American beech, black birch, yellow birch, sugar maple, hemlock, and black cherry trees. Lichen and mosses are often abundant, as are standing snags and downed logs. The squirrels nest in tree cavities, and suitable nesting sites are more common in old-growth forests.

RANGE: West Virginia northern flying squirrels are found in a seven-county area of the Allegheny Highlands of West Virginia, as well as in the adjacent Highland County, Virginia. The squirrels have home ranges approximately 15 acres in size.

MIGRATION: These flying squirrels do not migrate.

BREEDING: Very little information has been gathered about the breeding behavior, yet it is likely that as with similar species, the West Virginia northern flying squirrel gives birth in the spring or summer to a litter of between two and six young. Gestation periods are estimated at about six weeks.

LIFE CYCLE: Northern flying squirrels have been known to reach four years of age.

FEEDING: Unlike other flying squirrel species, Appalachian flying squirrels are not dependant on seeds and nuts as primary food sources. Throughout much of their range they are able to subsist on lichens and fungi, but they also consume seeds, buds, fruit, and insects, and they have even been observed eating tree sap.

THREATS: Climate change is the most significant threat to the West Virginia northern flying squirrel, with all models for climate change showing a drastic decline for northern hardwood and red spruce forests. Habitat loss, mining, logging, and introduced insect species pose additional threats to this squirrel and its habitat.

POPULATION TREND: Although once common throughout their old-growth forest homes, West Virginia northern flying squirrels suffered the near-complete elimination of their habitat from the 1880s until the 1940s as a result of industrial logging. The species was listed as endangered in 1985 when a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey was only able to locate 10 squirrels in four separate areas. By 2006, the agency claimed to have captured 1,100 squirrels at 107 locations, though these numbers are contested. The true squirrel population today is more likely to be near 650 individuals.

Northern flying squirrel photo © Dr. Lloyd Glenn Ingles, California Academy of Sciences