Zoological Investigations

The woolly flying squirrel, Eupetaurus cinereus, is the largest known squirrel alive today. This massive sciurid, as the scientific family containing squirrels is known, measures around 53 centimetres (just under two feet) in length, not including the massive fluffy tail, which is also around 53 centimetres long. It is the largest gliding animal known, majestically flinging itself out into open air amongst the boulders and Himalayan mountains of Northern Pakistan. I’m just assuming it’s majestic, but come on. It has to be. Think about it.

The woolly squirrel has a unique dentition among sciurids, affectionately referred to by anatomists and veterinarians as hypsodont, which means that the teeth have a high crown and enamel that extends past the gum line. This suggests that the squirrel eats highly abrasive plant material, probably the needles of coniferous pine trees found in the animal’s known habitat. It is primarily this unique dentition that makes the woolly squirrel the only member of its genus, Eupetaurus.

The woolly flying squirrel is huge. Imagine a two-foot squirrel roaming around the streets of Winnipeg. That’s the stuff of so-bad-it’s-good science fiction/horror films — I know I’d flee in terror. Squirrels bigger than ravens! Big and mean, I’ll bet! Can you imagine?! Lucky for us Winnipeggers, who’ve got enough of our own problems, these squirrels like mountains and not prairies. Clearly there is a serious lack of mountains in Winnipeg; “Garbage Hill” does not count.

Well anyway, getting back to the squirrels. Despite their absolutely huge size, woolly flying squirrels were believed extinct until just over a decade ago. Originally described in 1888, there had not been a confirmed sighting since 1924, and the species was known from only a few skins collected in the late 1800s. It was rediscovered by science in 1994 by Peter Zahler, a freelance editor and writer, and Chantel Dietemann, a math teacher.

Some locals of northern Pakistan believe that the dried urine of E. cinereus is an aphrodisiac. In this form, the squirrel’s urine is known as salagit and sold in the bazaars of Gilgit, Pakistan. It was two local men, collectors and retailers of salagit, who were paid by Zahler to find him a woolly flying squirrel, which they did. They brought it to him in a sack for US$150. Zahler and Dietemann did not find any more woolly squirrels during their trip, but they found lots of disembodied squirrel bits under the nest of a huge raptor, the eagle owl.

While little is known about the woolly flying squirrel at this time, and what is known has mainly been based on museum skin specimens, what we do know is that the squirrels are nocturnal and roost in caves and crevices on steep cliffs at elevations of between 2,400 and­ 3,800 metres. The woolly flying squirrel is currently listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN) as endangered, which means that it is believed to face a very high risk of extinction in the wild. The total population of these squirrels is estimated at between 1,000 and 3,000 individuals and, as is so often the case, habitat loss via deforestation is the main factor responsible for its endangered status.

The cry of the woolly flying squirrel is believed by some to herald the death of a loved one. Spooky.

“Never trust a squirrel,” I’ve always said . . . Never trust a squirrel.