Flying squirrels don't actually fly. Instead, they use superb gliding skills. They have an interesting adaptation that distinguishes them from other squirrels and allows them to glide seemingly effortlessly from one tree to another. But gliding isn't their only form of locomotion; they share climbing skills with other squirrel cousins.
Flying squirrels have skin-covered membranes that stretch between each front and back leg, creating wings of sorts when they extend their feet. Larger flying squirrels have a similar membrane between their back legs. These squirrels have fluffy tails that can stiffen and move around as necessary to help control the glide.
How It Works
When a squirrel gets ready to fly, he first bobs his head around in the direction of his desired landing site. Because his eyes are spaced on the sides of his head, his depth perception isn't great. He compensates by turning his head to check out his flight plan with both eyes. He then leaps off a branch, opening his legs and straightening his tail. The wind catches the squirrel under the membrane stretched between his legs, giving him enough lift to make it to the next tree. Most squirrels travel about 30 feet at a time, but some can fly for up to 500 feet.
Stopping the Glide
Crucial to the success of any glide is the ability to stop. When he's ready to land, a flying squirrel lifts his tail sharply to create drag and begins to pull in his feet. Flying squirrels have padded feet with sharp claws to help them land. The pads help cushion the landing, while his claws dig into the branches to keep him from falling.
Other Forms of Movement
Flying squirrels aren't relegated solely to air travel. Like other squirrel species, they are excellent climbers and spend much of their time moving around in trees. Flying squirrels tend to spend more time in the trees than other species. They can also run on the ground when they want to, but it's unusual for a flying squirrel to spend much time on the ground. They feel safer in the trees with their gliding escape mechanism available to get away from predators.