Arunachal boasts of flying squirrel | Namdapha flying squirrel spotted after 42 yrs

Beyond the Horizon

By Pradeep Kumar

Arunachal Pradesh located in Eastern Himalayan  with forest cover of  66,430.67 sqkm, which is over 79.33% of the state’s total geographical area, according to the Forest Survey India. The state, one of the 12 biodiversity hotspots of the world boasts of  about 20% species of country’s fauna, about 4,500 species of flowering plants, 400 species of pteridophytes, 23 species of conifers, 35 species of bamboos, 20 species of canes, 52 species of Rhododendron and more than 500 species of orchids. There are two national parks and 11 wildlife sanctuaries covering 11.68% of its geographical area.

The most interesting and unique fauna found in the state is – flying squirrel. Anwaruddin Choudhury, an ornithologist, mammalogist, artist, civil servant, photographer and author had spotted new species Mechuka giant flying squirrel of Petaurista mechukaensis in 2007 in Mechuka and – Mishmi giant flying squirrel of Petaurista mishmiensis genesis in Mishmi Hills in 2009 (picture 1). The unique species is found in  Ganga Lake, near Itanagr, Upper Siang district and Namdapha National Park in Changlang district, spread in 1,985 km2 protected area, which boasts of more than 1,000 floral and about 1,400 faunal species.

In fact in December 2023, a national daily had reported that nocturnal flying squirrel had resurfaced in Arunachal Pradesh after going missing for 42 years. The Namdapha flying squirrel (Biswamoyopterus biswasi) (Pictures 2 & 3) was last described in 1981 based on a single individual found in 1,985 sqkm of Namdapha Tiger Reserve in Changlang district.

The Namdapha flying squirrel, endemic to Arunachal Pradesh, inhabits tall Mesua ferrea jungles, often on hill slopes in the drainage basin area of Dihing River, particularly on western slope of Patkai range in northeastern India.

The failure of zoologists to locate the arboreal mammal during several expeditions had  generated two theories that it could have been mistaken for the very similar red giant flying squirrel (Petaurista petaurista) sharing the same ecosystem or worse, become history.

Ten of these expeditions were by teams of Aaranyak, an Assam-based biodiversity conservation group, for total 79 days in 2021. A team from the group finally sighted the Namdapha flying squirrel in April 2022.

The team led by Firoz Ahmed included Sourav Gupta, a field researcher, and Sourav Mardi, a volunteer who visited various potential sites close to a river at night. Tajum Yomcha, a research officer of Arunachal Pradesh Forest Department, aided the search for the elusive species.

“We sighted a small reddish and grizzled furry mammal high up on a tree. After months of scrutiny of the photographic evidence we gathered, experts are pretty much sure that the animal is the Namdapha flying squirrel,” Dr. Ahmed said.

The team members said they are designing a study to collect DNA samples of the squirrel in the field for comparing the genetic material with the DNA of the individual collected in 1981, stored at the Zoological Survey of India in Kolkata.

“If the animal sighted during our last expedition is established as the Namdapha flying squirrel, it will be a powerful flagship for conservation for both the tiger reserve and other wildlife species found here,” Dr. Ahmed said.

“What sets the Namdapha flying squirrel apart from the red giant flying squirrel is the prominent tuft of hair on the ears of the former,” Gupta said, adding “Our team was well aware that tracking down the elusive species, missing for 42 years with no live observations or photographs, and a complete absence of information, mirrored the difficulty of finding a needle in a haystack.”

The Aaranyak study was supported by Re:Wild, a global wildlife conservation organisation and  Small Mammal Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission.

Squirrels are naturally afraid of humans and this fear is healthy. Squirrels in urban or suburban areas may be less afraid of humans because they are regularly exposed to people. Wild squirrels in rural or forested areas may be more wary of humans because they see humans as potential predators. When threatened, squirrels may become aggressive and react defensively.  Thus, detecting them poses challenges and citing them during mating is rare.

Squirrels are members of Sciuridae family that includes small or medium-sized rodents. The squirrel family includes tree squirrels, ground squirrels (including chipmunks and prairie dogs,  among others) and flying squirrels. Squirrels are indigenous to the Americas, Eurasia and Africa, and were introduced by humans to Australia. The earliest known fossilized squirrels date from the Eocene epoch, and among other living rodent families, the squirrels are most closely related to the mountain beaver and the dormice.

The word squirrel, first attested in 1327, which came from the Anglo-Norman esquirel which is from Old French escurel, the reflex of a  Latin word sciurus, which was taken from Anceint Greek word  ‘shadow-tailed’, referring to the long bushy tail which many of its members have.

The native Old Ennglish word for the squirrel, ācweorna, only survived into Middle English (as aquerne) before being replaced. The Old English word is of common Germanic origin, cognates of which are still used in other Germanic languages, including the  Eichhörnchen (diminutive of Eichhorn, which is not as frequently used); Norwegian ikorn/ekorn; Dutch eekhoorn; Swedish ekorre and Danish egern. A group of squirrels is called a ‘dray’ or a ‘scurry’.

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