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Back from a century of extinction, conservation proposed for elusive Asian flying squirrel

The Travancore flying squirrel (Petinomys fuscocapillus) occurs in the forests of the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka, a global biodiversity hotspot, and is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. During the first half of the 20th century the species was thought to be extinct, but was rediscovered in the 1960s, then not seen again for over twenty years.

Being small, cryptic, nocturnal and arboreal, it is difficult to observe. Its range has so far been determined from only a small number of sporadic sightings over the last century.

Likely because of this, its conservation status and habitat requirements are poorly known, which has made it difficult to recommend conservation action.

The Travancore flying squirrel.

A new study in the open access journal Tropical Conservation Science has overcome these challenges through the use of GIS and ecological niche modeling. This approach has produced a predicted range map for the species, allowing the authors to recommend a plan of action for its conservation.

“We utilized occurrence records of 32 confirmed sightings of [the Travancore flying squirrel] to model the species’ potential geographic distribution by applying an ecological niche modelling (ENM) framework using Genetic Algorithm for Rule set Prediction (GARP). Results indicate that the modeled potential distribution of [the Travancore flying squirrel] in India is highly restricted to the narrow strip on western slope of the Western Ghats, and in Sri Lanka the predicted distribution is predominant in the lowlands of wet and intermediate zones.”

The authors found that the squirrel should occur mostly in medium elevation and lowland areas below 1200 meters in the two countries, but that less than 12 percent of the predicted range falls within protected areas. Additionally, in both India and Sri Lanka, lowland evergreen forest is the most disturbed and fragmented forest type. They recommend reforestation efforts in degraded lowland forests, biodiversity-friendly management of forest plantations, conservation of remaining forest fragments and better enforcement of anti-hunting laws “for the long term survival of this species”.

CITATION: Kumara, H.N. and Suganthasakthivel, R. 2011. Predicting the potential distribution of Travancore flying squirrel Petinomys fuscocapillus in Peninsular India and Sri Lanka using GARP and its conservation. Tropical Conservation Science Vol. 4(2):172-186

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