Pretty in Pink: Researcher discovers 'glowing' attribute in flying squirrel

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A Minnesota graduate student made an unexpected discovery about flying squirrels: the rodents appear do something interesting when exposed to UV light.

Orville the flying squirrel is an educational ambassador at the Staring Lake Outdoor Center, used to teach visitors about wildlife in Minnesota. But, even an expert on flying squirrels like Stan Tekiela is learning something new about his favorite animal. 

A professor at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, Jon Martin discovered flying squirrels glow hot pink under ultraviolent light. It all happened when one flew onto his birdfeeder while he was looking for plants and mushrooms that happen to do the same thing under UV flashlight.

"I was really amazed by how bright it was and how vibrant it really was."

His lead researcher, Allie Kohler, went to the Science Museum of Minnesota to look at flying squirrel specimens. More than 100 of them from three different species glowed bright pink under the same conditions.

"This is one of the first discoveries of its kind. It’s been discovered that opossums do fluorescence, but this is one of the first mammals this trait has been discovered in, so it was a big surprise for all of us,” she said.

Kohler isn't sure why the squirrels glow hot pink. She said it could be a way of attracting a mate or avoiding being eaten by predators like owls, which glow a similar color. Ultimately, Kohler said the discovery could help conservationists manage flying squirrels better or advance technology that uses fluorescence to detect cancer and other diseases.

"It’s really a new discovery we don't know a lot about, but as with any new discovery, there is a lot of potential about what it could be applied to in the future," she said.

Tekiela feeds flying squirrels in his front yard, and he hopes the new discovery increases our appetite to understand the world around us.

"This is just one more example of how we as people think we know something about nature, and time and time again we are proven we don't know a whole lot," he said. "I like the humbling feeling that there is something more going on in wildlife than we realize and understand."