These Flying Squirrels Glow Bubblegum Pink Under UV Light

Pink Squirrel, Flying Squirrel, New World Flying Squirrel, Biology, North America
A flash of magenta in a Wisconsin forest has led to the discovery that—under a certain light—North America’s flying squirrels actually do glow pink. Getty Images

Pink squirrel is no longer just the name of a Mad Men-era cocktail. A flash of magenta in a Wisconsin forest has led to the discovery that—under a certain light—North America's flying squirrels actually do glow pink.

Researchers, who spotted the rosé shimmer while probing lichen with ultraviolet light, turned to museum specimens to see if other squirrels had the same glow. They recently published the results of their study online in the Journal of Mammalogy.

The squirrels have made it into a Nature Highlight! #Journalofnature #flyingsquirrels #fluorescence #ultraviolet #discosquirrel

— Allie Monahan Kohler (@KohlerMonahan) January 28, 2019

"One evening, I hear the unmistakable chirp of a flying squirrel at our bird feeder," Jon Martin, a professor from Northland College in Wisconsin told Newsweek. "I point the light at it and bam! Pink fluorescence."

Martin recruited the help of undergraduate student Allie Kohler—now a graduate student at Texas A&M University—who formed a team to investigate the weird flash of color Kohler describes as "seemingly unnatural in the natural world."

Out of 135 museum squirrel specimens studied, the team found only members of the Glaucomys genus—New World flying squirrels—glimmered pink, Nature reported. Shine ultraviolet light on the critters that glide from tree to tree in forests from Honduras to Alaska, and they will shimmer. But the researchers don't know what effect this has on the squirrels, so they advise not to try it out on living animals in the wild.

The fur of other squirrels—the eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) and the American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)—had no such glow.

Researchers don't know why the creatures' fur turns cotton-candy pink, but they think it might help them recognise each other when there isn't much light, the team told Newsweek. It might also help them avoid predators, or have no special function at all. "This trait could just be a cool color they happen to produce," Kohler said.

"I think these kind of discoveries just cause us to pause in wonder at the world around us," Erik Olson, an assistant professor at Northland, told Newsweek.

"There is so much that is waiting to be discovered in this world, hiding right in front of us in plain sight," she added. "Sometimes, it just takes looking at the world in a different way to see things that haven't been seen before."

Pink squirrels aside, readers of Britain's Country Life magazine recently learned that Prince Charles loves his local red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) so much he gives them nicknames and allows them into his house. He described the Snow White-style scenes in a special edition he guest-edited.

"They come into the house at Birkhall and we get them chasing each other round and round inside. If I sit there quietly, they will do so around me," Charles wrote of the "incredibly special creatures."

The U.K's only native squirrel, S. vulgaris has been in decline for decades—a drop linked to the introduction of the eastern gray squirrel, according to the country's Woodland Trust. Introduced in the 1870s, the animals were brought over to be fashionable inhabitants of British estates, The Telegraph previously reported.

But the American critters plunder acorn supplies and carry a disease that kills red squirrels. Pressure from their gray Atlantic cousins can even stifle reproduction, the Trust reported.

But Charles—heir apparent to the British throne—is on hand to make life a little easier for his own furry friends. "Sometimes when I leave my jackets on a chair with nuts in the pockets, I see them with their tails sticking out, as they hunt for nuts," he wrote in Country Life.

This article has been updated to include comments from Allie Kohler, Jon Martin and Erik Olson.