Scientists discovered a flying pink squirrel

These squirrels can not only fly but turn pink? Some creatures have all the fun.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
2 min read

You've heard of flying squirrels. But hot-pink flying squirrels? Someone get Pixar on the line.

A new study in the Journal of Mammology describes how the North American flying squirrel, or Glaucomys, fluoresces pink at night. The researchers can't say for sure why, but communication and camouflage top their list of theories. Squirrel discos do not appear to be a possibility.

Enlarge Image

A flying squirrel as seen by the naked eye (above) and under ultraviolet light.

A. M. Kohler et al

The hot-pink find came about by chance.

In the spring of 2017, Jon Martin, a professor in the forestry department at Wisconsin's Northland College, was scanning his backyard with an ultraviolet flashlight to see which lichens, mosses and plants fluoresced. That's when he spotted a flying squirrel, and noticed it glowed hot pink under the ultraviolet light.

He asked Allison Kohler, then studying at Northland and now a graduate student in the Texas A&M University wildlife and fisheries department, to take the lead investigating his discovery. She started with the Science Museum of Minnesota's collection of stuffed squirrels, some of which go back decades.

"Some specimens were extremely vibrant pink, while one actually didn't fluoresce at all. All but this one did fluoresce, however, in some intensity or another," she said via email.

The team also gathered specimens at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, in all, studying more than 100 male and female museum specimens across the country, plus five live ones. They concluded that all three North American flying squirrel species fluoresced, and that pink is particular to squirrels that fly.


A flying North American squirrel, wearing its day colors.

A. M. Kohler et al

While plenty of species fluoresce -- from plants to insects to frogs, fluorescence has yet to be widely studied or documented in mammals, according to the research paper. The squirrel find is colorful news for anyone who likes squirrels -- or the color pink. But it also offers a window into the species' behavior.

The scientists speculate that the squirrels' bright night flashes may alert other squirrels to their movements as they glide through trees. The pink could also play a role in attracting mates and avoiding predators.

But researchers hope the find could have even broader implications.

"It could potentially help with the conservation of the species or other species, and it could also relate to wildlife management," Kohler said. "The more we know about the species, the more we can understand it and help it."

Rebooting the Reef: CNET dives deep into how tech can help save Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

The Smartest Stuff: Innovators are thinking up new ways to make you, and the things around you, smarter.