10 March 2011
Wilmington, N.C. - Superman had a cape. Flying squirrels have the help of conservationists at the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and two University of North Carolina Wilmington biology students.
Graduate student Katelyn Schumacher and undergraduate student Kate Barsova are working to conserve an endangered population of Northern flying squirrels, Glaucomys sabrinus, living in the Appalachian mountains of N.C., Tennessee and Virginia.
Listed as federally endangered in 1985, the squirrels face many survival challenges. The construction of a scenic byway, the Cherohala Skyway, created a gap too wide for the squirrels to glide across and isolated populations on either side of the road. Additional survival challenges include competition with the Southern flying squirrel – a smaller but more aggressive species that lives in lower elevations – and damage to habitat from heavy logging, development, acid rain and forest fires.
Barsova works directly with Chris Kelly, a biologist with the Commission, to conduct surveys of Northern flying squirrel nest boxes attached to trees and collect blood for Schumacher to analyze back at UNCW.
The goal is to genetically determine how many sub-species exist in order to develop more targeted conservation strategies. So far, at least two have been identified.
"It's important to identify these sub-species correctly," Schumacher says. "For example, one endangered sub-species could inadvertently be lumped together taxonomically with another that is doing just fine."
The students became involved with the project when the Commission contacted their professor, UNC Wilmington biologist Brian Arbogast, who has studied the ecology, evolution and conservation of flying squirrels for almost 20 years. Arbogast uses DNA markers to understand how populations of the Northern flying squirrel are connected to, or isolated from, one another.
The Appalachian populations have adapted to coniferous forest habitats found only on the highest peaks, restricting them to patches of land known as 'sky islands.' Using a furry membrane called a patagium, which stretches between the front and rear legs, the animals glide from tree to tree as a main mode of transportation and only come to the ground to forage on a species of underground fungi known as truffles.
"We monitor the health of flyer populations by checking the boxes for occupants once each winter. There are hundreds of boxes across several mountain ranges in western N.C.," Kelly explained. The biologists take a tiny sample of blood from a nick in the squirrel's ear flap and mail the blood sample to Schumacher, who is stationed in Arbogast's Conservation Genetics laboratory at UNC Wilmington.
Both students' projects are still underway but "preliminary results are pretty interesting," Kelly said.
Interviews can be arranged with Arbogast, Schumacher and Barsova. A wide range of photos and some video of the Northern Flying Squirrel and the researchers are available. Several high-res photos are available for download online at: http://appserv02.uncw.edu/news/artview.aspx?id=3088