After two decades of separation, a simple engineering fix has reunited a population of endangered Carolina northern flying squirrels.
The Unicoi Mountains, which rise along the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, are home to a threatened subspecies of northern flying squirrel found nowhere else in the world. The small, nocturnal rodents are brown with creamy underbellies, and they eat lichen and moss. They also boast an impressive gliding distance—up to eighty feet—but the gaps created by roads often exceed their flying abilities. That’s how one population of the flying squirrels was split in half by a scenic byway. For twenty years, the two groups suffered from a lack of access to mates, food, and nesting dens.
Luckily, someone was paying attention. Carolina northern flying squirrels are poorly studied owing to their secretive nature, but they’ve been federally protected since the 1980s. A team of scientists and state officials in the Appalachian mountains erected three sets of launching posts—no more than modified utility poles—to help the squirrels overcome the distance. Then they spent fifteen months watching to see if the flying squirrels would use the posts.
You can see what they found in this funny little video:
The curious animals have been observed using all three sets of posts to launch themselves across the skyway, making the project a success.
Animal crossings are no stranger to controversy, but the fact remains that sometimes smart, straightforward engineering solutions can have a big impact on wildlife.
Kelly, C. A., Diggins, C. A. and Lawrence, A. J. (2013), Crossing structures reconnect federally endangered flying squirrel populations divided for 20 years by road barrier. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 37: 375–379. doi: 10.1002/wsb.249