Who thought flying squirrels would make good pets?

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By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor

Who hasn’t looked at a cute wild animal and thought, “I want one!”?

Take flying squirrels, for instance. They have huge eyes, tiny pink noses, and long, furry tails. Adorable.

Still, most people pretty easily figure out that wild animals don’t actually make good pets. It’s in the name: They’re wild. Flying squirrels (pictured above) have strong, sharp teeth, will relieve themselves wherever they feel like it, they’re high-energy, and they’re nocturnal.

Yet it turns out a lot of people do want flying squirrels as pets. So many, in fact, that thousands have been smuggled abroad from Florida in recent years. In 2019, Florida authorities started investigating what they now believe is the biggest flying squirrel trafficking ring in the country. They’ve made several arrests, including of suspected trappers and couriers. Also nabbed: the person they say was at the center of it all, a Florida man who has long held permits to breed alligators, turtles, and flying squirrels.

The investigation involved GPS trackers stuck to cars, cell phone triangulation, seizures of financial documents, and all the makings of what eventually led to charges ranging from organized dealing in stolen property to racketeering. Nat Geo’s Dina Fine Maron spent weeks combing through police reports, body cam footage, and court records to bring you this inside look at the investigation.

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Today in a minute

Pangolins: They’re the world’s most trafficked non-human mammal. And last year, 128 tons of the endangered animals’ scales and meat were intercepted, four times the amount seized just five years, says Nat Geo, first to report this new data. The mammal’s scales are in demand for traditional Chinese medicine; its meat eaten as a delicacy. Although international trading has been banned since 2016, smuggling efforts continue strong and have shifted to Africa, since pangolin populations are declining in Asia. Subscribers can read our 2019 investigation into pangolin smuggling. (Pictured above, a rescued Temminck’s ground pangolin named Tamuda searches for ants or termites at a rehabilitation center in Zimbabwe.)

These animals depend on fires: Run. Fly. Burrow. Most animals employ various techniques to escape wildfires. But some species need fire to survive and reproduce. Heat from flames stimulates morel mushrooms to release spores. Mule deer and black-backed woodpeckers, require burned areas to both eat and nest. But the shining example may be the red-cockaded woodpecker, now endangered, but recovering strongly because of controlled burns and nest boxes. Read more about the woodpecker’s comeback here.

Recognizing hurdles: Carnivore ecologist Rae Wynn-Grant says she has to put her “feelings aside” when her fieldwork takes her to places where she encounters racist symbols. The National Geographic Society fellow tells the AP she passed Confederate flags and a doll of a lynched man en route to studying bears in rural Maryland. The obstacles and triumphs of Black scientists are being recognized this week during Black Mammalogists Week, inspired by the success of Black Birders Week. Both efforts promote career opportunities as well. Today, Black academics hold a virtual chat on threatened mammals, and tomorrow there are events on fishing and hunting while Black. Sign up here.

Getting chilly? Here’s what hummingbirds high up in the Andes do to survive frigid nights: They can cool their body temperature to just a few degrees above freezing, Science reports. It’s a speedy bird version of energy-saving mode, and hummingbirds need something to slow down. They have a metabolic rate 77 times that of a normal human, or probably 100 times that of your grumpy, unimpressed curator. Hummingbirds, I have an alternative: fleece.

Your Instagram photo of the day

Above and below the water: National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala captured this split view off Mexico’s San Benedicto Island. Sala, the author of the recent The Nature of Nature, is seeking to use words, photography, and video to make leaders worldwide “fall in love with their ocean.” As he puts it, “You can only protect what you love.”

Subscriber exclusive: Why we must stop harming nature to protect ourselves from pandemics

Overheard at Nat Geo

Winged survivors: When an asteroid slammed into Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula 66 million years ago, it ended nearly all lineages of dinosaurs. But you could argue that the age of dinosaurs never really ended: More than 10,000 species of dinosaurs live alongside us, and they’re the most diverse group of land vertebrates alive today.

What do we call them? Birds.

In the latest cover story for National Geographic, Michael Greshko digs into the new science of dinosaurs, which has revealed insights into how birds became birds. New fossil finds have filled in the menagerie of feathered dinosaurs such as Caihong (pictured above), which lived in what’s now China more than 160 million years ago. Using modern microscopes and chemical techniques, scientists think that Caihong had rainbow iridescent feathers, just like you see in this illustration.

Scientists also have learned that flight wasn’t unique to birds and their immediate ancestors. In all likelihood, flight arose within dinosaurs at least three separate times!

As National Geographic celebrated in its 2018 Year of the Bird, our avian neighbors are irreplaceable parts of the world we share. But because of habitat loss, climate change, and other stressors, bird populations are suffering. In the last 500 years, we’ve lost nearly 200 bird species to extinction. Hundreds more are now on the brink.

Humans couldn’t do anything about the asteroid that wiped out most dinosaurs. Now, we know that we risk being an asteroid all our own—but we can still save the dinosaurs that didn’t die. Check out more on dinos, including their avian connections, here.

In a few words

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The last glimpse

Adopt a tarantula? U.S. officials had a hairy, crawly problem on their hands. Actually, 250 of them. What do you do when you discover a shipment of smuggled baby Brazilian whiteknee tarantulas and Brazilian salmon pink bird-eating tarantulas (pictured above)? Wildlife authorities got Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo on the line. “It’s not the call you want to get, because it means that animals are being trafficked,” says Erin Sullivan, the zoo’s animal care manager. “But it’s also kind of exciting. You think, ‘Oh, what is it going to be?’” Temporarily housed at the zoo, it took 20 months for some of the tarantulas to find a forever home, Jason Bittel writes for Nat Geo.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Kimberly Pecoraro and Gretchen Ortega helped produce this. Have an idea, a link, a tarantula story? We’d love to hear from you at
david.beard@natgeo.com . And thanks for reading.

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