Flying squirrels are curious creatures that only come out at night, communicate in ultrasonic calls too high-pitched for humans to hear, and are able to glide tree-to-tree thanks to a unique membrane between their wrist and ankle that resembles a parachute.
Now Trent University researchers have investigated yet another unique characteristic: Why flying squirrels glow bright pink when exposed to ultraviolet light while other rodents, such as ground squirrels, do not.
“This research brings us one step closer towards trying to better understand the mechanisms causing fluorescence in mammal fur,” says Bryan Hughes, a recent Biology student who whose research paper on flying squirrel fluorescence was recently published on the bioRxiv service.
Water Quality Centre supports research
Trent offers students robust research opportunities through the Kawartha Flying Squirrel Project, which is run by a group of scientists affiliated with Trent University, including Biology professors Dr. Paul Wilson and Dr. Gary Burness, along with Dr. Jeff Bowman – a Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources, and Forestry (NDMNRF) scientist and adjunct professor in Trent's Environmental and Life Sciences Graduate Program.
For this research, Bryan used the world-class equipment in Trent’s Water Quality Centre, including mass spectrometers, to examine the compounds in flying squirrel fur and found that there was no unique compound causing it to glow pink. He says a good area for future research would be to focus on fluorescence being the result of compounds that are in both nocturnal and daytime mammals, but which lose their ability to fluoresce when exposed to sunlight.
Unique collaboration a win-win
This research would not have been possible without collaboration with NDMNRF researchers who work on campus and support Trent faculty and students on many projects.
Through this particular collaboration, Bryan says he gained professional connections, opportunities for summer employment and critical practical hands-on experience with field skills such as ear tagging, measuring body- condition characteristics and collecting data samples.
Professor Bowman, who supervised Bryan’s work, says the collaboration is win-win.
“It provides a unique opportunity for Trent students to develop a network of government researchers, and for government staff to work closely with the academic research community, which helps to ensure that work is state-of-the-art,” Prof. Bowman says. “There are only a few locations across Canada where government and academic researchers work so closely together.”
Trent’s flying-squirrel research has captured the interest of national media as it has been featured on CBC’s The Nature of Things and CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks. The flying-squirrel research, as well as a Trent research project on wild turkeys, are also part of the new documentary Canada: A Year in the Wild, which is currently airing on Amazon Prime.