Vanishing wizards of the night

The fiesty flying squirrel, also called the magic cat, is the hero of every villager’s spooky story

Published - May 09, 2020 04:37 pm IST

Indian giant flying squirrels glide from tree to tree in search of flowers and fruits. Photo: Ramki Srinivasan

Indian giant flying squirrels glide from tree to tree in search of flowers and fruits. Photo: Ramki Srinivasan

A round flat-faced head with a pink nose and blazing eyes stared down from a tree hollow. Nandini Rajamani and her assistant gazed up at this dark-coloured creature illuminated by their headlamps in the Anamalais, Tamil Nadu. “Mayappoonai [magic cat],” murmured the assistant in Tamil. The ‘cat’ was actually a rodent.

Ignoring the two earthbound humans it saw daily, the animal jumped out of the hollow. It stretched its legs and spread a parachute-like flap of skin, assuming the shape of a large rectangular pan with a long handle. Rajamani, as always, felt wonder at the spectacle of such moonlit glides.

Creative canvas

As it sped through the air on that still night, the billowing membrane sounded like the flapping of a canvas sheet. When the house cat-sized creature alighted with a loud ‘thunk’ on the trunk of a wild durian tree, it resumed its original appearance, that of the Indian giant flying squirrel. The voluminous sheath folded against the body on landing where the animal remained motionless for a moment, its mottled greys and browns becoming one with the bark.

The flying squirrel’s Tamil name may either refer to this ability to vanish or its shape-shifting talent. Perhaps it hints at the acrobatic animal’s long-drawn calls that rend the still night air, making villagers’ hair stand on end. The scream is unlike the typical sharp, repetitive staccato sounds made by other squirrel species. “It’s a cross between a wail and a croak,” says Rajamani. “Like a baby’s cry. They can keep calling for more than half an hour.” The spooked people imagine a terrifying creature of supernatural powers haunting the forest. They’d be surprised the shriek belongs to a nondescript squirrel.

Eager to gorge

The animal humped up the trunk, the enormous folds of skin along its sides slowing its progress. Rajamani watched expectantly as it approached a cage trap strapped to a branch and looked inside before skirting around and walking on towards the clusters of flowers. It settled down to gorge, with its fluffy tail curled up against its back, looking like an ordinary garden-variety squirrel.

Favourite foods

For Rajamani, it was yet another failed night. She had been trying hard to catch a few to collar with radio transmitters. Every evening for seven months, with the help of interns trained in climbing, she hoisted nine cage traps 15 metres up and strapped them in place.

Each was baited with one of the squirrels’ favourite foods: peanut butter, jackfruit or coconut. Like the one she watched avoid the contraption, not a single flying squirrel succumbed to temptation. She even tried to set a trap right outside a hollow so the resident would have no choice but to walk into it. But the canny rodent glided away as soon as it spotted her at the base of the tree. It was almost as if ‘the magic cat’ had the ability to see through her ruse.


An opportunity presented itself when she came upon one on the ground.

Flying squirrels often have accidents, since gliding at night can be challenging without the benefit of landing lights. Rajamani saw a carcass impaled on bamboo and others hanging from power lines. So it wasn’t uncommon to find one that had crash-landed.

She took off her jacket to throw over the dazed squirrel. But the researcher was uncertain of herself and asked her assistant to do the deed. He was just as reluctant. As they stood debating, the animal sat up on its haunches. Afraid of missing the chance, Rajamani approached, holding the jacket open, a matador of flying squirrels. But the knee-high creature hissed and spat, holding its sharp long claws at the ready.

It might look cute nibbling on fruits and flowers, but it turned feisty at the sight of the stalking researcher. The humans backed off, taken aback by this aggressive behaviour, and it bounded away.

The villagers were right: The ‘magic cats’ can be terrifying indeed.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.

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