Both squirrels and bats have been around for over 35 million years with bat-like flying mammals appearing approximately 15 million years before squirrels in the fossil records.
Both species evolved from just one part of ancient North America and spread to nearly all parts of the world. Bats and flying squirrels have some common characteristics with both being creatures of the night, eating many of the same foods and having the ability to soar through the air.
Both species also emit high pitched vocalizations and have been known to take up residences in the same areas, such as attics. Bats and flying squirrels also have some minor physical resemblances that can lead people to believe the two animals may be related.
So, with all these seeming similarities it raises the question, “Are flying squirrels and bats related?”
The quick answer is that flying squirrels and bats are related at the level of Class (Mammals) but are not related at the level of Order as flying squirrels are Rodents and bats are Chiroptera.
Lets take a closer look at these two very different species of animals.
A Overview of Flying Squirrels
The term “flying squirrel” is somewhat of a misnomer as these daredevil rodents don’t actually “fly,” but glide on large flaps of skin that run between their legs along the sides of their body cavity. These flaps act more like a parachute than wings and allow the squirrels to rapidly and safely descend from great heights.
There are two species of flying squirrels, the northern and southern, that inhabit North America and other species are found in Asia, Borneo and Pakistan. The squirrels color variations and diet vary slightly based on their location.
In the U.S. the southern flying squirrel is about eight to 10 inches in length with the northern flying squirrels being about two inches longer. The diet of both species consists of seeds, nuts, fruit, fungi, eggs and carrion with slight regional variations.
Even though the squirrels are not capable of powered flight like bats, scientific studies have shown the rodents can glide over 150 yards when launching themselves from sufficient heights. During flight the squirrel uses skilled movements of its legs, wrists and tail to control descent, direction and speed. This allows the squirrel to move between trees without ever needing to go to the ground.
The National Wildlife Federation: Flying Squirrels
National Geographic: Flying squirrels
Basic Facts About Bats
Unlike the flying squirrel that glides through the air in an overall downward trajectory, the bat is the only mammal capable of true powered flight. Their flying ability paired with an insanely sophisticated ability to navigate using echolocation, also called bio sonar, allows bats to find their way and their prey in total darkness.
There are currently over 1,200 species of bats recognized around the world with many species being very abundant. Most bats subsist solely on insects and fruit, however some species known as “vampire” bats feed on the blood of livestock. However, vampire bats do not “suck” blood as their name implies, but make tiny bites and lick up the blood with their tongue. Of the three species of vampire bats found in North America, only one type inhabits the United States in southwest Texas.
Another misconception is many people mistakenly believe that a bat will get tangled up in their hair when one suddenly swoops towards their head, however this is an old wives tale. Bugs are attracted to humans for a variety of reason and the bat is just going after a bug that is near their head. In fact, a bat’s bio sonar is so sensitive and accurate it can find a single bug in an area the size of a football field!
U.S. Department of the Interior: North American Bat Monitoring Program
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Echolocating bats rely on an innate speed-of-sound reference
Classifications and Relationships of Flying Squirrels and Bats
Relationships in the animal kingdom are categorized by rankings on the taxonomy scale that has seven main classifications:
- Phylum (or division)
Bats and flying squirrels both belong to the class Mammalia, or mammals, in the Phylum Chordata in the Kingdom Animalia, or the animal kingdom. Placing mammals in one Class indicates they are more closely related to each other than they are to any animal in a different Class. While the two animals share the characteristics of all mammals, such as regulated body temperature and bearing and nursing live young, the question remains, are flying squirrels and bats related?
Based on the similarities of bone and teeth structure, most scientists believe the bat’s ancestors were most likely insect eating mammals that probably lived in trees and gave rise to moles and shrews. However, bats are not rodents and not even closely related to that class of mammals.
Squirrels are rodents and fall under the order referred to as Rodentia, or rodents, and bats belong to an entirely different classification of Chiroptera that is reserved only for bats. This is because Chiroptera literally means “hand-wing” and describes the bat’s most unusual and unique anatomical feature.
Irrelevant of some superficial characteristics, bats and flying squirrels are related only in the sense that they both belong to the mammalian classification. However, this is where the relationship ends as bats and squirrels belong to different orders. So, using the taxonomy scale, bats and flying squirrels are no more or less related than are rabbits and humans.
It should be noted that bats are distant cousins of flying foxes which much more closely resemble bats than squirrels. In fact, the bat’s Order Chiroptera is divided into the two suborders of Megachiroptera, consisting of a single family, the flying foxes, and the Microchiroptera that is composed of the bat families. The bat families are further classified into roughly 180 genera and more than 900 species. Only the rodent class, of which flying squirrels belong, has a greater number of species.
In one sense bats and flying squirrels are related up to the point of both being mammals, but that is as far as any relationship goes. However, it is interesting to note that some evolutionary theorists suggest that all mammals had one common ancestor that all species evolved from. So, relationships within the animal kingdom may just all be a matter of perspective.
Encyclopedia Britannica: Bats, Flying Lemurs & Flying Squirrels
Smithsonian: The Art and Science of Bats
University of Hawaii: Evidence of Common Ancestry and Diversity