Wildbuzz: Glides on moonbeams

Accomplished wildlife photographers will tell you that the pursuit of a rare, nocturnal species can be the proverbial cast of dice. Such adventurers set out to godforsaken spots at obscure hours, their hearts set on a digital hunt of a target species. They return with quite not an empty bag! It so happened with Rajive Das, a Chandigarh-based Defence Research and Development Organisation scientist, bird photographer and author of the book, Birds of Chandigarh & its Periphery.

At 4 am, Das was travelling on the road to Narkanda to get a photo of the Tawny owl, which is believed not to exist outside Kashmir. But Das had earlier photographed a Tawny from the Narkanda forests and he was hoping to hear their calls and secure another photograph. It was not to be because the owls were silent that night. But he got something else, which foxed him.

Two mammals were on a roadside cliff 20 km short of Narkanda (altitude 2,400 m). “I guessed they were flying squirrels but it was difficult to establish the precise species,” Das told this writer. Flying squirrels prove difficult to identify because they lead secretive and nocturnal lives, are inadequately researched and surveyed, and fewer photographs exist for comparison.

To facilitate identification and put at ease a confounded Das, I sought the guidance of an assistant professor at the Amity Institute of Forestry & Wildlife, Dr. Murali Krishna Chatakonda. He is a distinguished field researcher who has conducted studies on flying squirrels in the north-east and Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP), Kullu. Chatakonda is the first to publish a PhD dissertation on the ecology and diversity of flying squirrels, thus shedding some light on the bypassed lives of Nature’s startling and wondrous manifestations. Unlike familiar garden squirrels, flying squirrels dwell beyond the pale of human imagination. Upon a considered examination of Das’s nighttime pictures, Chatakonda identified them as Kashmir Gliding squirrels (Eoglaucomys fimbriatus).

India harbours an estimated 18 species of flying/gliding squirrels, of which two – Red Giant Gliding squirrel & Kashmir Gliding squirrel (KGS) – are found in the western Himalayas. Gliding is an evolutionary mechanism that allows squirrels to evade predators like civets and save energy by “long skipping” between trees rather than climb down and go up another tree. Gliding squirrels are largely nocturnal to avoid competition in foraging with daytime species.

“These squirrels do not fly, which is basically achieved by birds who flap their wings for locomotion. These are more accurately squirrels that glide in the air. They have an extended skin flap between their fore and hind legs and another flap between hind legs and a long, flat tail. These skin flaps are like parachutes, the more the squirrel opens them, the greater the distance of glide achieved between trees. The tail lends stability and acts as a rudder to steer and change glide direction. When the squirrel has to glide between two trees, it judges wind speed and direction, elevation differential, height difference between trees. I have observed the KGS glide 10 to 15 m in the GHNP. Some species recorded glides of 180 to 200 m!” Chatakonda told this writer.

“Researchers find it difficult to secure funds from government and non-government agencies to study squirrels because preference is to allocate funds for glamorous and popular species such as tigers/rhinos. Researching gliding squirrels in the field is a very tedious exercise as it has to be undertaken at night and by craning the neck towards the canopy (30-40 m) where squirrels dwell. Gliding squirrels are a prey base for raptors and act as seed dispersers as well as seed crushers. They eat fruits and the KGS is known to relish pine needles/seeds,” said Chatakonda.

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