Natural Connections: Going crazy for flying squirrels
By Emily Stone
Naturalist/Education Director at the Cable Natural History Museum
Bam! Click. Whirrrrr. Giggle. All spring and summer, Museum staff and visitors have been enjoying the sound of our mechanical flying squirrel being launched on her zip line across the new Curiosity Center kids’ area. Created by the talented engineers at KidZibits in St. Paul, MN, the flying squirrel glides across the room and then automatically slides back, ready to be launched again at the press of a big red button.
Much to my delight, just as our flying squirrel was being readied for its inaugural launch last spring, another flying squirrel exploded onto the scene. You may have seen the headline: “Flying Squirrels That Glow Pink in the Dark,” read The New York Times. Versions of the story appeared in National Geographic, Newsweek, Smithsonian, and of course, Northland College Magazine.
I’m both a Northland College graduate and a science nerd, so my Facebook feed exploded with the news that a team of professors and students from Northland College had discovered that all three species of flying squirrels in North America—northern, southern, and Humboldt’s—fluoresce hot pink if you shine a UV light at their bellies.
In a version of our mechanical flying squirrel, “click” went the gears of discovery when Professor Jon Martin shone his black light flashlight at his backyard bird feeder. “Whirr” went the gears of science as he, his colleagues, and a student confirmed the findings. “Bam!” went impact of the research as it reached the scientific community through immediate publication in the Journal of Mammalogy. And “giggle” went the public as we all discovered this surprising and goofy aspect of nature.
Punk-rock flying squirrels are a fantastic punchline, but the entire story tickles me pink. For starters, Jon Martin discovered the first glowing pink squirrel just by being curious in his own backyard. The world’s first fluorescent frog was discovered in Argentina in 2017, so Jon was checking to see if any of our local gray tree frogs fluoresce. They didn’t, but the flying squirrel that glided into his birdfeeder for some sunflower seeds did.
So of course Jon shared this exciting, and weird, discovery with his colleagues at Northland College. Being a small school, professors frequently discuss their work across disciplines. Prof. Erik Olson is so enthused about this potential for collaboration that his wildlife research lab deliberately shares space with Jon’s forestry lab. “Sharing space forces people to interact, have conversations, and start thinking about new ideas,” Erik told me over the phone. “That cross pollination can lead to great discoveries and advancement. Plus, the lab has organically become a space where a lot of faculty come to make tea and congregate to have conversations.” In my personal experience, tea and enlightening conversations are hallmarks of the Northland College vibe.
Allie Kohler, then entering her senior year at Northland, (and now working on a master’s degree at Texas A&M,) was privy to some of those conversations. Like many students at this experiential school, she’d already had ample opportunity for hands-on research in the form of small mammal trapping with both Erik and Prof. Paula Anich, and occasionally caught flying squirrels as part of that work. Jon gave Allie his black light so that she could test the next flying squirrel she caught. When it, too, glowed pink, Jon and the other professors asked Allie to take the lead on formally researching the exciting discovery. What an amazing experience for an undergraduate!
When I asked Paula what it was like to work with Allie on this project, her answer gave me warm fuzzies. “Allie did really amazing work,” said Paula. She had a lot of insight, and big ambitions. She worked extraordinarily hard. Creative research with undergraduates is what Northland does best.”
For example, Allie took the initiative right away, by applying for money from Northland’s Parsonage Fund. Bob Parsonage was the president for my first two years at Northland, and he wished to prepare students to become the citizen-leaders of the future. Many of my classmates used the funds to support professional development opportunities they couldn’t otherwise afford. Allie used the money to visit The Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM) in St. Paul.
“Have you ever seen the inside of a museum, like in the basement with just everything… dinosaur fossils, bones…EVERYTHING?” she gushed to me. Yes, I feel that same excitement when peering into my own museum’s collections room.
The curator at the SMM gave Allie access to all of the squirrel specimens, and she found that just the flying squirrels—but not the diurnal squirrels—glowed pink. The naturalists who preserved those specimens had no idea that one day they would be used to study fluorescence in mammals, but one purpose of preserving specimens is to help us answer questions we’ve not yet thought to ask. Erik, Paula, and Jon later visited The Field Museum in Chicago to test more flying squirrel specimens from across the map.
I asked Allie if it was difficult for her to write the scientific paper about their research. “It’s easy if you like what you’re writing about,” she told me. “Discoveries are only going to be valuable if you can communicate it to other people.”
That’s one reason it was so gratifying to have their research go viral. “The number of people we got to stop and think about flying squirrels even for a matter of a minute is a pretty powerful thing,” said Erik. “I think one of the biggest impacts of our research is that it caused a lot of us to pause and wonder at the natural world that exists right in our backyards.”
I’m not going to pretend they’re of equal importance, but that wonder is the goal of the Museum’s flying squirrel, too.
Special Note: Stone’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open. Call us at 715-798-3890 or email [email protected].