Sturgis McKeever, Georgia Southern University, Bugwood.org.
As introduced in the last issue of Timber Tales, animals have played a key role in American animation since the early 1900s, and, to this day, cartoon animals star in everything from feature films and television shows to commercial advertisements and public service announcements. Clearly, species’ stereotypes have influenced the development of some our most beloved cartoon characters, but how similar in appearance and behavior are animated wildlife to their real-life counterparts? Over the next few installments of Timber Tales, we’ll take a closer look at how certain animals are portrayed in animation, starting with my personal favorite: Rocky the Flying Squirrel.
Rocket “Rocky” J. Squirrel and his best friend, Bullwinkle J. Moose, were the title characters of a television series created in the 1950s by Jay Ward and Alex Anderson. The animated show, which ran from 1959 to 1964 on the ABC and NBC networks, was set in the fictional town of Frostbite Falls, Minnesota, where Rocky and Bullwinkle shared a home. The duo was famous for their inventions, getting into mischief, saving the world, and trying to outrun notorious superspies Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. Both Rocky and Bullwinkle had special skills that they used during their adventures. Most notably, Bullwinkle possessed exceptional strength and could remember every single thing he ever ate, and Rocky could glide, hover and carry objects through the air, occasionally with a boost from Bullwinkle’s “mighty moose muscle.” As appropriate given his full name and occupation as a flying superhero, Rocky always wore an aviator hat, and his aerial acrobatics were accompanied by jet engine sound effects. Part of Rocky’s appeal stemmed from the fact that he was stylistically simple, and he was easy to recognize as a squirrel with his slate gray fur, big bushy tail, enormous eyes and two large front teeth. When he wasn’t flying, Rocky walked upright on his hind legs and delivered some of the greatest puns of all time. So how does the animated Rocky character compare to the real deal?
There are 43 species of flying squirrel worldwide, but Rocky’s character is most likely based on the animator’s general knowledge of the flying squirrels that occur in North America. This includes three species, which are geographically separated and not known to interbreed but are indistinguishable without genetic testing. The southern flying squirrel is the species we have right here in Louisiana. They are nocturnal and use forested habitat similar to their diurnal cousins, the eastern gray squirrel and the fox squirrel. Unlike Rocky, you won’t find a flying squirrel cohabitating with a moose — that’s just ridiculous! But flying squirrels are quite gregarious and may nest with other flying squirrels throughout the year. Adult flying squirrels most often build their nests in old tree snags, cavities excavated by woodpeckers, artificial nest boxes and, occasionally, buildings. In addition to their primary nest site, research conducted at the University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Lab suggests that female flying squirrels maintain several secondary nests where they can flee with their young if their primary nest site becomes dangerous (e.g., during forest fires).
In hand, flying squirrels are quite small, weighing no more than 2 to 3 ounces and measuring approximately 9 inches in length. They are rarely seen in an upright position, but instead scurry along branches and tree boles on all four legs to get from one place to another. Like Rocky, they have enormous eyes, which evolved to collect light for better night vision. Unlike Rocky, their pelage is rarely monochromic, but rather colored reddish brown and various shades of gray, and they have a creamy white belly that is often tinged with pink or cinnamon hues. In addition, flying squirrels fluoresce bright pink at night, which we can only see if we look at their fur under a black light! Scientists at Northland College in Wisconsin hypothesize that this unique reflectance may help them avoid predators, navigate in certain terrains or communicate. Alternatively, if you pay close attention while you are outside at night, you may hear them communicating via audible birdlike chirps. Research suggests that the pitch and length of these sounds may change depending on the type of information that the squirrels are trying to send (e.g., warning signals or location of food patches). Flying squirrels can also emit high frequency ultrasounds for communication among individuals, which could help them navigate while gliding, avoid predators and maintain social bonds. While these modes of communication aren’t punny, one could argue that the diversity of signals that flying squirrels use to “talk” to one another are amazing enough to rival any of Rocky’s jokes!
Unlike Rocky, who had a large bushy tail and could fly like a bird, bat or insect, flying squirrels have a 3- to 4-inch flattened tail and are not capable of true flight. Instead, they glide through the air using a furred membrane or skin — called a patagium — which extends between the wrists of their front feet and ankles of their hind feet. They also have cartilaginous spurs on each wrist that they can extend to achieve greater reach. Studies suggest that the average glide is 65 feet (slightly longer than a bowling lane), but they can glide up to 295 feet, the same distance that the Statue of Liberty is tall! Just because flying squirrels don’t really “fly” doesn’t mean they can’t perform some of the same aerial feats as Rocky. Unbelievably, flying squirrels can reach speeds of 10 to 30 mph and using their tail as a rudder, they can make really sharp turns and even glide in semicircles to arrive at their destination!
Flying squirrels are clearly fascinating, and we hope this article has piqued your interest to learn more. Stay tooned for the next installment and contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a specific request for a comparison between a cartoon character and its real-life counterpart!
Ashley M. Long is an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the AgCenter.