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Critically endangered: Kashmir Flying Squirrel

By Bhushan Parimoo

Beyond adorability of the Squirrels around us. The role it plays to preserve and protect the environment overlooked altogether and thereby ignored. Despite of the fact that this species belongs to the rodent category yet it helps in renewal of many tree species in forests. Got the name from the ancient Greek word skiouros, meaning shadow-tailed. The Native American symbol it for preparation, trust and thriftiness .They live in almost every habitat, from tropical rainforests and semiarid deserts avoiding only the high Polar Regions. Australia and Antarctica is the only continent in the world where it is not found .Are of black, white, grey, brown and red in colour. White squirrels are rare, and are mostly found in South East Asia and Thailand. Squirrels have been around for more than 35 million years. Comes in different sizes the smallest the African pygmy squirrel which is tiny at around 10 cm long, whereas the largest, the Indian giant squirrel is a massive three feet long. The size of the brain is about the size of a walnut. Communicate with each other through various vocalisations and scent marking. They also use their tails as a signalling device, twitching it when uneasy to alert other squirrels of potential danger. Possesses a very large appetite eats almost equal to its body weight in a week’s time. Have very sharp teeth, which continue to grow throughout their life. These incisors are used for cracking nuts or chewing through things to find food. Keep them sharp by gnawing on wires or rocks. Can run as fast as 20 mph can, as it has strong hind legs and short front legs jump a distance of 20 feet. With its padded feet jump from a height of 100 feet as well. Have 4 toes in front legs, whereas the hind legs have 5. Squirrels do not hibernate but stay inside their nest during the winters to save their energy. Usually a solitary creatures, except during mating, during the winter season might share a nest with other squirrels, mate either once or twice a year. A gestation period range of three to six weeks; give birth to a number of off springs. A new-born is about an inch long. The young are born in a nest naked toothless, blind and helpless. Cared for by their mother or a female one .By five weeks are able to practice gliding skills by ten weeks they are ready to leave the nest. Many juvenile squirrels die in the first year of life. Adult squirrels can have a lifespan of 5 to 10 years in the wild. In general, the ground-dwelling squirrel species are social, often living in well-developed colonies are very trusting animals of the very few wild animal species which will eat out of a person’s hand .While as the tree-dwelling species are more solitary. The males are the cleanest in the rodent family. They take up a lot of time grooming themselves, unlike their female counterparts. Squirrels have excellent eyesight. Since their big eyes are placed on the sides, they can see particularly well on the sides. However, they have trouble seeing things that are directly in front of them. That is probably why people complain about getting bit on their fingers while feeding squirrels. Squirrels are primarily herbivores; eat a wide variety of plants, as well as nuts, seeds, conifer cones, fruits, fungi, and green vegetation. Squirrels have been known to eat small birds, young snakes, and smaller rodents, as well as bird eggs and insects. Squirrels eat fruits before they are even ripe due to its inability to differentiate between the colours green and red! The squirrel lick or rub it on their face before burying the food for lean season. This leaves a scent which allows the squirrel to find it again after the winters are over. In temperate regions, early spring is the hardest times for squirrels of year .Because the nuts they bury begin to sprout thus are no longer available to eat. Thereby many of the usual food sources do not become available during this period. So squirrels have relied heavily on the buds of trees. Some tropical squirrel species have been found almost shifted entirely to a diet of insects. Besides it some squirrels has been found consume meat also, when faced with hunger. Squirrels bury their nuts in the ground, called caching behaviour of seeds. They dig up and eat most of the food they bury, but some time it is forgotten. The nuts and seeds that are not recovered sprout in the spring and grow into plants and trees, thus assisting with forest renewal. Researchers look at tree squirrel populations to measure just how well a forest ecosystem is faring. Because they depend on their forest habitats for seeds, nesting sites, and food storage, the presence and demographics of tree squirrels in an area is a good bellwether for the health of a mature forest. Studying changes in squirrel populations can help experts determine the environmental impact of logging, fires, and other events that alter forest habitats In particular the plants that produce heavy seeds that have few chances to sprout when they fall near the parent plant. To acknowledge the role that Squirrels play in nature and the environment .Squirrel Appreciation Day is celebrated January 21 every year world over. The State of Jammu and Kashmir has its share of Squirrels species known as the Kashmir Squirrel (Eoglaucomys fimbriatus) besides common ground Squirrels. There are 44 species of ‘flying squirrel. While Kashmir Flying Squirrels is restricted to subalpine, the ground squirrels are found all over in warmer climate. Kashmir Flying Squirrels are almost on the edge of extinction due to neglect and habitat loss. The number as per reports gathered is occasionally sighted in deep forests .Whereas as per highland dwellers beside nomads it was often sighted. Strangely no mention found in the list of concern with the Wildlife Protection Department. Squirrels belongs to Sciuridae family that includes small or medium-size rodents. The living squirrels are divided into five subfamilies, with about 58 genres and some 285 species .The squirrel family includes tree squirrels. Ground squirrels, Chipmunks, marmot (including woodchucks), flying squirrels, and prairie dogs amongst other rodents. Species of squirrels found in India are Indian Palm Squirrel, Woolly Flying Squirrel, Red Giant Flying Squirrel and Orange Bellied Himalayan Squirrel, Indian Giant Squirrel, Black Giant Squirrel, Grizzled Giant Squirrel, Indian Flying Squirrel, Namdapa Flying Squirrel, and others. Flying Squirrels are not capable of flight in the same way as birds or bats but are able to glide from one tree to another with the aid of a patagium, a furry, parachute-like membrane that stretches from wrist to ankle. Their long tail provides stability in flight. Squirrels can control the blood flow to their tails to cool down or keep warm, and they use this to their advantage in a fight, pumping blood into their tails. Unlike most mammals, can descend a tree head-first. They do so by rotating their ankles 180 degrees, enabling the hind paws to point backward and thus grip the tree bark from the opposite direction .Anatomically they are very similar to other squirrels but have a number of adaptations to suit their life style; their limb bones are longer and their hand, foot bones and distal vertebrae are shorter. They are capable of obtaining lift within the course of these flights, with flights recorded to 90 metres. The direction and speed of the animal in mid-air are varied by changing the positions of its limbs, largely controlled by small cartilaginous wrist bones. There is a cartilage projection from the wrist that squirrel holds upwards during a glide. This specialized cartilage is only present in flying squirrels and no other gliding mammals. Possible origins for the styli form cartilage have been explored, and the data suggests that it is most likely homologous to the carpal structures that can be found in other squirrels. This cartilage along with the manus forms a wing tip to be used during gliding. After being extended, the wing tip may adjust to various angles, controlling aerodynamic movements. The wrist also changes the tautness of the patagium, a furry parachute-like membrane that stretches from wrist to ankle has a fluffy tail that stabilizes in flight. The tail acts as an adjunct air foil, working as an air before landing on tree trunk Flying squirrels are able to steer and exert control over their glide path with their limbs and tail. They have a membrane of skin on either side of their body. Several hypotheses have attempted to explain the evolution of gliding in flying squirrels. One possible explanation is related to energy efficiency and foraging. Gliding is an energetically efficient way to progress from one tree to another while foraging, as opposed to climbing down trees and manoeuvring on the ground floor or executing dangerous leaps in the air. By gliding at high speeds, flying squirrels can rummage through a greater area of forest more quickly than tree squirrels. Flying squirrels can glide long distances by increasing their aerial speed and increasing their lift. Other hypotheses state that the mechanism evolved to avoid nearby predators and prevent injuries. If a dangerous situation arises on a specific tree, flying squirrels can glide to another, and thereby typically escape the previous danger. Furthermore, take-off and landing procedures during leaps, implemented for safety purposes, may explain the gliding mechanism. While leaps at high speeds are important to escape danger, the high-force impact of landing on a new tree could be detrimental to a squirrel’s health. Yet the gliding mechanism of flying squirrels involves structures and techniques during flight that allow for great stability and control. If a leap is miscalculated, a flying squirrel may easily steer back onto the original course by using its gliding ability. A flying squirrel also creates a large glide angle when approaching its target tree, decreasing its velocity due to an increase in air resistance and allowing all four limbs to absorb the impact of the target. J&K Wildlife Protection Department should bring its protection and preservation in its scheme of things.
(The Writer is a Jammu based Environmentalist)