- Bats are the only mammals that are capable of true flight.
- Other mammals such as sugar gliders and flying squirrels are capable of gliding from place to place thanks to a membrane called a patagium.
- Soaring is gliding for a long period of time without effort.
Bats are the only mammals that are capable of true flight. True flight is achieved with the motion of wings, and to that end, the forelegs and fingers of bats evolved into leathery wings. Other anatomical adaptations also had to happen to allow bats to truly fly, such as having a heart that’s much larger than mammals of similar size. Bats are mammals because they have fur, are warm-blooded, and nurse their babies with milk.
Other mammals such as sugar gliders and flying squirrels are capable of gliding from place to place thanks to a membrane called a patagium. The patagium is attached to their limbs and serves as a sort of parachute. Gliding can be gravitational or it can be soaring. Mammals that “fly” usually glide gravitationally, which means they launch themselves at something they want to get to and let the wind help them get there.
Soaring is gliding for a long period of time without effort. It is unusual for mammals to actually soar, for they would need to find a thermal of air that rises faster than they would descend in a glide. Several gliding animals are not only mammals but marsupials, which means that their babies are born in a nearly embryonic stage and spend much time developing in the mother’s pouch. Here are some mammals that can fly or sort of fly:
8. Flying squirrels
There are about 50 species of these gliding little mammals (or mammals that “fly”), who can glide for as long as 300 feet. Especially adept at gliding, flying squirrels can moderate their speed and their position. This is largely due to projections in their wrists. These projections are made out of cartilage and form something like a wingtip. No other gliding mammal has them.
The northern and southern flying squirrels look much like sugar gliders but are not related to them. The northern flying squirrel is nearly 11 to nearly 13.5 inches long with a tail 80 percent as long as its body. It weighs between 2.6 and 4.9 ounces and has lustrous gray and brown fur. The southern flying squirrel is a little smaller. These flying squirrels mate in spring and have one to six babies, who are naked and helpless at birth.
The Japanese giant flying squirrel can be as long as 23 inches and can weigh nearly 3 pounds. It’s not only the largest flying squirrel, it is the largest squirrel overall and can glide as much as 525 feet at a time, though the average is about 164. Japanese giant flying squirrels are herbivores and are active at night.
Flying squirrels are omnivorous and eat anything from fruit, flowers, seeds, spiders, snails, mushrooms, insects, and the eggs of birds. When the flying squirrel is placed under ultraviolet light, it turns pink. They are native to North America, Central America, Asia, and northern Europe.
#7. Feathertail Glider
This marsupial is named after its feather-like tail. It’s found in Australia and at a length of only 2.6 to 3.1 inches, it is the smallest gliding mammal on earth. It has soft fur that’s gray on top and white beneath, with large, forward-facing eyes and round ears. Because it eats mostly pollen and nectar, the tongue of this glider is unusually long and full of papillae. The tail is at least as long as the body. Unlike some of the other Australian gliders, the feathertail glider is omnivorous and eats arthropods and the hardened covers of honeydew that protect some insect larvae as well as plant material.
Feathered gliders are nocturnal and so agile that they’re able to climb up glass windowpanes. They live for about five years and can glide around 92 feet from one tree to the next.
Anomalures, which are also called scaly-tailed flying squirrels, are found in Africa. There are three genera and seven species, and even though they’re called flying squirrels they’re not related to flying squirrels of the Sciuridae family. They get their common name because they have interesting raised and pointed rows of scales on the underside of the base of their tail. These scales may help anomalures grip tree branches.
Like many gliding animals, anomalures are nocturnal and spend the day sleeping in tree hollows as a group. Though they mostly eat plant materials such as flowers, leaves, and fruit they will also take insects. Unlike the colugos and the gliders, their babies are precocious, born furred, and with their eyes open. The long-eared scaly-tailed flying squirrel is a little over 8 inches long and weighs 0.88 to 1.23 ounces, while the tiny pygmy scaly-tailed flying squirrel is only 2.5 to nearly 3 inches long.
These gliding mammals are found in Southeast Asia and are made up of two species. They are the Philippine and the Sunda flying lemur. They are nocturnal, arboreal, between 14 and 16 inches long, and weigh 2 to 4 pounds. Their limbs and body are slender, and they have a small head, small ears, and webbed fingers and toes. Colugos are herbivores and have a set of interesting teeth, as their incisors resemble tiny combs and their second upper incisors have an extra root. This is not seen in any other mammal. Colugos can glide as much as 490 feet from one tree to the next.
Colugos are not marsupials such as greater gliders or sugar gliders, but they resemble marsupials in that their babies are born very undeveloped, and the mother enfolds them in her patagium. This almost serves as a pouch. The babies are protected in this quasi-pouch for about six months.
#4. Greater Glider
Greater gliders are members of the Petauroides genus, and like the sugar glider, they’re found in Australia. The two animals aren’t very closely related, however, though both glide and both are marsupials. There are three species, with the northern greater glider being the smallest, the southern greater glider being the largest and the central greater glider is a size in between. They usually grow between 15 and 17 inches long, with the largest species weighing up to 3.5 pounds. Greater gliders have long bushy tails that are longer than their bodies. They have soft, long, brownish, or grayish-brown fur, and females are bigger than males. They’re solitary, nocturnal, and eat the buds and leaves of eucalyptus trees.
#3. Sugar Glider
This gliding marsupial is one of several members of the genus Petaurus. It looks somewhat like a squirrel, is between 9 and 12 inches long, and weighs between 4 and 5 ounces. Males are a little bigger than females. It has a luxuriously thick and soft coat that is often a shade of bluish-gray on top with a black stripe from its nose to its back and cream-colored underparts. Male sugar gliders have four scent glands, and the places where these glands appear on the animal’s head and chest are bald.
The sugar glider is nocturnal and has huge, forward-facing eyes to help it see as it glides from tree to tree. It gets its name because it is partial to sweet foods such as nectar. It’s found in Australia and is sometimes kept as a pet. Sugar gliders can glide as much as 165 feet.
These are the much smaller bats that often use echolocation to navigate through the night sky and find their prey. Most of these bats grow between 1.6 and 6.3 inches long. They are mostly insectivores, though larger bats can also take animals as large as frogs or fish and even smaller bats. A few species found in Central and South America do drink blood, and some species eat nectar or fruit. Microbats have smaller eyes than megabats, and their ears are proportionally much larger and have a tragus, which is that little piece of flesh right next to the opening of the ear. Among these bats are the mouse-tailed bats, vesper bats, pipistrelles, ghost-faced bats, and smoky bats.
These are the largest bats on earth and are usually called flying foxes or fruit bats. There are about 60 species of these bats, and they’re found in southern and southeast Asia, east Africa, and Oceania. Unlike smaller bats, they don’t echolocate but have acute eyesight and a keen sense of smell. The large flying fox is one of the largest of these bats. Native to southeast Asia, it is an herbivore despite its scientific name of Pteropus vampyrus. It can weigh a little over 2 pounds and has a wingspan of nearly 5 feet. These powerful wings let the mammal fly as far as 31 miles in search of food. An even larger bat is the giant golden-crowned flying fox, whose wings stretch an impressive 5 feet 7 inches.
Other megabats include the dog-faced fruit bats, the naked-backed fruit bats, the Fijian monkey-faced bat, the eastern tube-nosed bat, and the hammer-headed bat.
While bats are the only mammal that truly flies, there are several others that glide so well it seems like they fly. Several of these species are marsupials as well. The only marsupial that lives in the US in the opossum. However, they most definitely do not fly or even glide. These are the mammals that are able to fly or glide.
- Are Marsupials Mammals? Do you want to know more about marsupials? Check out this article,
- Sugar Glider These guys are often sold as pets. Are they right for you?
- 10 Incredible Flying Squirrel Facts The idea of a flying squirrel sounds ridiculous but they are very real and very interesting. Learn more about them here.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Manop Boonpeng/Shutterstock.com
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.