UNCW Associate Biology Professor and Team of Researchers Discover New Flying Squirrel Species

Monday, June 12, 2017

Research led by UNCW Associate Professor of Biology Brian Arbogast has resulted in the discovery of a new flying squirrel species.

The research team unveiled America’s newest mammal, “Humboldt’s flying squirrel,” and the rigorous journey of exploration that led to its remarkable discovery in a scientific paper, “Genetic Data Reveal a Cryptic Species of New World Flying Squirrel: Glaucomys oregonesis."

Arbogast, in collaboration with a team of researchers including former UNCW graduate student, Katelyn Schumacher ’12M, analyzed the DNA of 185 flying squirrels from across North America. Analyses of the DNA verified that the northern flying squirrel is actually two distinct species – one that is widespread across northern North America, and a previously unrecognized species that only occurs along the Pacific Coast. The genetic analyses conducted by Schumacher while she was at UNCW were instrumental in determining that the two species appear to be reproductively isolated from one another. The newly uncovered species was given the common name “Humboldt’s flying squirrel” in honor of the famous geographer and naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt.

“Humboldt’s flying squirrel is what scientists refer to as a ‘cryptic’ species,” said Arbogast. “Cryptic species are not easily recognized as being distinct based on physical appearance. While the new flying squirrel species may have some unique physical or behavioral traits that will be found upon further study, none have become obvious yet, even as the genetic data were revealed.”

Because cryptic species are essentially “hidden in plain sight,” they are often overlooked, hindering our ability to study and protect them, Arbogast noted. Genetic research like that conducted by Arbogast and his colleagues can be a tremendous help in identifying and conserving such cryptic species.

"We often hear about species on the brink of extinction, a major problem we are facing today,” said Arbogast. “However, thanks to modern genetic approaches, strong natural history collections and old-fashioned fieldwork, biologists are identifying new species every day. We are in an unusual period in human history, one of alarming loss of biodiversity on one hand, and one of incredible biodiversity discovery on the other. Countering biodiversity loss and speeding up the rate at which we catalogue new biodiversity both rely on education, well-trained scientists and a commitment to fund this kind of research."

Learn more:

Journal of Mammalogy scientific paper

National Geographic online article

National Geographic video 

Research conducted and reported by Brian S. Arbogast, Katelyn I. Schumacher, Nicholas J. Kerhoulas, Allison L. Bidlack, Joseph A. Cook and G. J. Kenagy

-- Christina Schechtman


Arbogast and a Humboldt's flying squirrel

Arbogast and a Humboldt's flying squirrel. Photo by Nick Kerhoulas.