Carolina northern flying squirrel
Glaucomys sabrinus coloratus
The Carolina northern flying squirrel can trace its roots back to the last ice age. During this time, ice sheets covered much of northern North America, forcing cold-climate plants and animals further south. As temperatures warmed and ice sheets receded, those cold-climate species migrated north, and some found refuge on the high, cold peaks of the Southern Appalachians. Over thousands of years, these isolated, mountain-top populations became increasingly distinct, a process that gave rise to the Carolina northern flying squirrel, a subspecies of northern flying squirrel only found in the high-elevation areas of North Carolina, Tennessee, and southwest Virginia.
There are two species of flying squirrels in the Southern Appalachians – the northern (Glaucomys sabrinus) and southern (Glaucomys volans). They can be difficult to tell apart visually, therefore the elevation and habitat where they are found can be the best distinguishing traits.
Northern flying squirrels are about one-third larger than the very common southern species. Also, northern flying squirrels have brown colored fur on their backs, and bicolored fur on their bellies that is gray at the base and creamy white at the tip. Southern flying squirrels have brown or gray fur on their backs with bright white fur on their bellies, and a clearly defined (usually black) line separates the fur colors. The endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel is a subspecies of the northern flying squirrel.
Carolina northern flying squirrels are typically found in high elevation, mixed red spruce-northern hardwood and spruce-fir forests. These habitats are often moist and cool. Southern flying squirrels are most often found in the warmer and drier hardwood and mixed pine-hardwood forests of low and mid elevations.
Northern flying squirrels principally feed on certain fungi and lichens, though they also eat fruits, seeds, insects, and some animal matter.
Likely occurred on high mountains throughout the region. See “Current Range” below.
Carolina northern flying squirrels are found on high mountain peaks in southwest Virginia, western North Carolina, and eastern Tennessee.
The limited and discontinuous range of this subspecies in the Southern Appalachians makes it vulnerable to a number of threats, particularly those posed by humans. These impacts are primarily related to changes to the landscape. Habitat destruction, fragmentation, the clearing of forests, introduced exotic pests (like the balsam woolly adelgid, an European insect which attacks and kills Fraser fir trees in the squirrel’s range), recreational and residential development, pollution (heavy metals and acid rain), and climate change can all affect populations of the Carolina northern flying squirrel.
Recovery of the Carolina northern flying squirrel depends on four criteria:
- Populations are stable or expanding over at least a ten-year period in a minimum of 80% of the places where it’s found;
- Those sites are managed to ensure quality habitat to support and even expand populations, and where appropriate, habitat corridors are maintained between sites;
- Data has been collected and analyzed to ensure effective management of squirrel habitat, and
- The squirrel’s high-elevation habitat is not threatened by introduced pests or environmental pollutants.
Partnerships, research and projects
The Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative is an effort that includes the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, Southern Highlands Reserve, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and other partners to restore red spruce to areas where it was lost due to logging and extensive, intense forest fires around the turn of the 20th century. The effort should result in expanded habitat for the Carolina northern flying squirrel.
How you can help
Look for opportunities to help steward high-elevation forests or support efforts to restore these forests. Possibilities include the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Southern Highlands Reserve, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Mount Mitchell and Grandfather Mountains State Park in North Carolina, Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park, and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.
Visit high-elevation sites in the Southern Appalachians to learn about and experience these sites first hand. Easily accessible sites are available at Mount Mitchell State Park, Grayson Highlands State Park, Grandfather Mountain State Park, Roan Mountain on the Pisgah National Forest, and Clingman’s Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Subject matter experts
- Sue Cameron, Asheville Field Office, (828) 258-3939
Designated critical habitat
Designation of critical habitat was determined not to be prudent for this species as a precise description of their location could result in increased disturbance and taking of the animals.
Federal Register notices
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