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A biologist holding a small squirrel with yellow gloves
Information icon A Carolina northern flying squirrel in the hands of a biologist. Photo by Sue Cameron, USFWS.

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.

Appearance

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.

Habitat

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.


Diet

Northern flying squirrels principally feed on certain fungi and lichens, though they also eat fruits, seeds, insects, and some animal matter.

Historical range

Likely occurred on high mountains throughout the region. See “Current Range” below.

Current range

Carolina northern flying squirrels are found on high mountain peaks in southwest Virginia, western North Carolina, and eastern Tennessee.

Check out a map of the squirrel’s distribution in North Carolina.

Conservation challenges

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.

A single taller seedling emerges from a ground covered in small green plants
A seedling rising on the floor of a spruce-fir forest, by Gary Peeples, USFWS.

Recovery plan

Recovery of the Carolina northern flying squirrel depends on four criteria:

  1. Populations are stable or expanding over at least a ten-year period in a minimum of 80% of the places where it’s found;
  2. Those sites are managed to ensure quality habitat to support and even expand populations, and where appropriate, habitat corridors are maintained between sites;
  3. Data has been collected and analyzed to ensure effective management of squirrel habitat, and
  4. The squirrel’s high-elevation habitat is not threatened by introduced pests or environmental pollutants.

Read the recovery plan.

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.

Two biologists take measurements from a Carolina northern flying squirrel in the field
Biologists measure the hind foot of a Carolina northern flying squirrel, by Gary Peeples, USFWS.

Subject matter experts

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.

Additional resources

Federal Register notices

The following Federal Register documents were automatically gathered by searching the Federal Register Official API with this species’ scientific name ordered by relevance. You can conduct your own search on the Federal Register website.

  • We're sorry but an error occurred. Visit the Federal Register to conduct your own search.

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