Large bodied mammals like moose, deer, wolves and caribou are majestic and lead to a sense of “awe” by the general public.

In some cases, people will even stop midway on a road trip and pull over just to snap a photo of them!

There is something serene about a large wildlife interaction.

Oftentimes, however, smaller mammals, like the Ontario flying squirrel, are forgotten, and sometimes even ignored, by both the general public – as well as researchers. It isn’t often you see people stop to snap pictures of a squirrel!

But Sasha Newar, a PhD candidate in the Environmental and Life Sciences Graduate Program at Trent University has devoted her time to researching the flying squirrel to help discover why this species is so special – and deserves to be protected.

Flying squirrels are found in many hotspots across Ontario, including Algonquin Park, the Kawartha Highlands, the Greater Toronto Area and Peterborough.

Ontario is blessed with a rich diversity of less well-known small mammals like the flying squirrel – but they are under threat because of climate change and urban development.

Flying squirrels are rapidly moving north and their migration patterns are largely unknown. This could have a domino effect on other ecosystems for many reasons. As one example, the flying squirrel plays a vital role in dispersing fungus which could impact the delicate balance of flora and fauna in specific areas.

Sasha, a PhD candidate at Trent University, is investigating how flying squirrels communicate with each other and how, and why, they might be deciding to move northbound. Rodents who use high ultrasonic vocal frequencies are difficult to research by the scientific community – and as a result, they are often left understudied due to their complexity.

Although difficult to study, Sasha is up for the challenge.

She has spent her time investigating both northern and southern flying squirrels by using ultrasonic microphones to detect them in the wild.

Using ultrasonic bat detectors to record flying squirrels around Peterborough and at Trent University, Sasha is able to detect when the flying squirrels are most active and determine what a squirrel is doing to make an ultrasonic call.

As nocturnal species, Sasha has to be specific about her methods to ensure she can collect data accurately. She even uses infrared cameras at night to ensure the squirrels are visible.

So far, Sasha has discovered that flying squirrels are unique in many aspects – specifically their ultrasonic calls to communicate with other flying squirrels. Much like bats, they use “echolocate”, meaning they can locate objects by reflecting sound!

Her research will show that some traits, like body size, main predators, and amount of social interactions can lead some mammals to communicate in higher frequencies than others.

Sasha is thankfully partnered with the Toronto Zoo to record other mammals at the same time with the ultrasonic microphones, which allows more mammals to be heard in their “secret language”.

Sasha reminds us that studying how smaller mammals communicate is important.

It helps provide a more in-depth understanding of what is happening as ecosystems rapidly disappear and when they are in stress.

We can’t forget that smaller mammals are being equally effected by habitat and biodiversity loss as larger ones– and that every species is affected by climate change. All species deserve to be protected and given fair protective measures to survive.

Thank you Sasha for sharing this important research with us!

Here is what Sasha has to say about her Trent University experience:

“I have had a wonderful experience thus far at Trent University and would like to highlight the support I received from my supervisor, my committee, and the graduate program to convert from a master’s to a Ph.D. during my second year. Through opportunities in both programs and funding, I have been able to attend multiple conferences including an international conference to present at a conference dedicated to squirrel research. I am looking forward to continuing my studies with Trent and their continued support and opportunities!