A brand new 'hidden species' of flying squirrel discovered in part by University of Alaska researchers

The new species captured on camera in Mendocino County, CA. Photo by Nick Kerhoulas, UAF.
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - A brand new species of flying squirrel has been discovered in the Pacific Northwest, researchers said in a research study published on Wednesday.

The newly identified creature has been named “Humbolt’s Flying Squirrel” after a naturalist named Alexander von Humbolt, who lived from 1769 to 1859.

Prior to this discovery, scientists had only believed that two species of flying squirrel inhabited North America. Now, scientists say, that number is three.

Scientists said that visually there are slight size and color differences in the animal's anatomy, but the report states that overall "it doesn’t look much different from its relatives."

In a statement made by an ecologist with the University of Alaska Southeast, they say six scientists contributed to the research, and that the discovery of the new squirrel was aided by the help of Alaska data.

According to Allison Bidlack with UAS, the new squirrel is native to the Pacific Coast, from southern British Columbia all the way down to California. While not native to Alaska, the Humbolt flying squirrel’s territory does overlap with another flying squirrel breed that does inhabit Alaska – the northern flying squirrel.

It was the northern flying squirrel, which researchers were collecting in Southeast Alaska 20 years ago, that appeared to be exhibiting what was originally thought to be odd mating habits in forests of the Pacific Northwest.

“As we were analyzing the data, [biologist Brian Arbogast] started realizing that in the Pacific Northwest we were looking at squirrels that were basically living in the same forest that were not interbreeding at all,” Bidlack said.

This prompted a closer look at museum samples of squirrel specimens around the United States, eventually leading to the discovery of two distinct squirrel species living in the same area and not interbreeding with one another.

According to the research paper, there was initially only one flying squirrel on the continent, but later “actually diverged about two million years ago as a result of the last ice age.”

The reason that the northern and Humbold squirrels didn’t breed is due to this large time lapse. Bidlack said that while the northern and southern flying squirrels (the other of the three species found in North America) could interbreed due to being “sister species,” the Humbolt squirrel could not.

“This one (Humbolt’s) was isolated for a long time,” Bidlack said. Due to this, she calls Humboldt’s flying squirrel a “hidden species.”

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