Sydney, 31 May, 2021: High in the Himalayan Mountains lives one of the world’s rarest mammals, the woolly flying squirrel (Eupetaurus cinereus). This beautiful squirrel is more than a 1 meter (3 feet) long, weighs 2.5 kg (5 pounds), and spends its life gliding through mountain forests. Though known to scientists for almost 130 years, it was previously thought to be a single very rare species living mostly in remote valleys in Pakistan.
An international team of researchers from Australia and China have now shown that two related species of gigantic woolly flying squirrels, both previously unknown to science, occur in India and China. Led by Australian Museum Chief Scientist Professor Kristofer Helgen and Research Associate Dr Stephen Jackson, and Chinese scientists Professor Xue-Long Jiang and Dr Quan Li, the findings were published today in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.
Using the handful of museum specimens of woolly flying squirrels available, plus data from field expeditions, the team have confirmed that these huge, fluffy squirrels form three widely separated populations that represent distinct species, two of which were described as new species during this study. These have been named the Tibetan Woolly Flying Squirrel (Eupetaurus tibetensis) and the Yunnan Woolly Flying Squirrel (Eupetaurus nivamons).
Helgen explained that comparative research in museum collections, along with new fieldwork, often leads zoologists to species that are new to science, even new mammals. But even Helgen found the discoveries unexpected.
“These are some of the largest squirrels in the world, so it is pretty surprising that it has taken until 2021 for them to get their scientific names,” Helgen said.
“The two new species are gorgeous, soft-furred squirrels that are genetically and anatomically very different from all other squirrels. And they live on top of the world—in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau,” Helgen added.
Jackson said the squirrels live at altitudes up to 4,800m (or 15,700 feet, more than half the height of Mt Everest), occur largely in areas uninhabited by people, and are some of the least known animals in the world, with only a handful of people having seen the mammal glide.
“At over one metre in length with a thick pelt of silky fur, the squirrel is one of the largest in the world. It is a nocturnal animal, with a huge furry tail like a fox,” Jackson said.
The project began with Jackson’s studies of the classification of various little-studied species of flying squirrels, and was advanced by genetic comparisons by Dr Fahong Yu, which were later further developed at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. To measure and photograph the few museum specimens of giant woolly flying squirrels available, members of the team visited eight museums around the world, including museums in India, China, the Netherlands, the UK, and the USA.
Populations of woolly flying squirrels had previously been suspected to occur in China, but firm documentation was lacking until this study.
“Two skins of one of the new species, the Yunnan Woolly Flying Squirrel, were purchased from markets as early as 1973,” said co-lead author Quan Li of the Kunming Institute of Zoology in Yunnan Province, China. “However, we knew almost nothing about the species until they were documented with camera traps between 2014 and 2016.”
“The eastern Himalayan region where the Yunnan Woolly Flying Squirrel was discovered is the intersection of three global biodiversity hotspots: the Himalayas, the mountains of southwest China, and Indo-Burma. A large number of new species, even large mammals, such as the Skywalker Hoolock Gibbon, have been discovered in the area, indicating that the area is poorly studied and of high biodiversity conservation value,” co- author Xue-Long Jiang said.
The other new species, the Tibetan Woolly Flying Squirrel, is known from the southern Tibetan Plateau, in the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China and the Indian state of Sikkim. Most specimens of this species were collected more than 50 years ago but have been largely overlooked in museums until now. Scientists now hope that populations of the Tibetan Woolly Flying Squirrel still occur in high elevation areas of China, India, and Bhutan.
Jackson explained that all three species of giant woolly flying squirrels live near the tree line, above 2,400 metres elevation.
“Very little remains known about them so far, but they have highly specialized teeth and are known to feed on pine needles, a very unusual diet, and rest in rocky crevices. Though they live in remote areas, all species are potentially affected by hunting, habitat loss, and warming climates,” Jackson said.
“Discoveries like these help to demonstrate the great deal of basic work that still needs to be done to document and conserve our planet’s biological diversity. Much of this requires careful comparisons that can only be made using natural history museum collections, and some of it is also enabled by new technologies, like camera trapping,” Helgen said. “But this is just the beginning. Now that these species have been clearly identified, it is time to learn everything else we can about them.”
About the Australian Museum
The Australian Museum (AM) was founded in 1827 and is the nation’s first museum. It is internationally recognised as a natural science and culture institution focused on Australia and the Pacific. The AM’s mission is to ignite wonder, inspire debate and drive change. The AM’s vision is to be a leading voice for the richness of life, the Earth and culture in Australia and the Pacific. The AM commits to transforming the conversation around climate change, the environment and wildlife conservation; to being a strong advocate for First Nations cultures; and to continuing to develop world-leading science, collections, exhibitions and education programs. With more than 21.9 million objects and specimens and the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI), the AM is not only a dynamic source of reliable scientific information on some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges facing our region, but also an important site of cultural exchange and learning.
About the Kunming Institute of Zoology
The Kunming Institute of Zoology (KIZ) was founded in 1958 and is affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Located at the head of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot, KIZ is dedicated to research in the fields of biodiversity, evolution, conservation, and sustainable utilization of resources in southwestern China, the Eastern Himalayas, and Southeast Asia. KIZ cooperated with Yunnan Province to build the Kunming Natural History Museum of Zoology, the largest and richest animal museum in Southwest China, containing a current collection of about 0.9 million animal specimens. Internationally, KIZ maintains collaborations across the globe, with numerous partnerships and connections with renowned scientific research institutions in East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Americas, Europe, and other countries.
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