A Squirrel in Namdapha

Recently I was reading an article about animals which may be extinct because they haven’t been seen in several years. One was the Namdapha Flying Squirrel, which has only one recorded sighting in 1981:

Dr. Shyamrup Biswas of the Zoological Survey India collected a unique flying squirrel from… Namdapha, Tirap District, Arunachal Pradesh, India… which resides in the Zoological Collection of the Zoological Survey of India, Kolkata [Calcutta], India
https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1bb8/403e8792e3db000a95d99df3543bc8236907.pdf

Strangely, there is this photo on the squirrel’s Wikipedia page, looking alive and well:

If you do a search, you’ll see more presentations and articles using a variety of animals’ photos, even though this squirrel is supposed to be unseen and extinct. Maybe all are a case of missing identity. Maybe someone was right?

According to Conservation India, their northeast region has 13 other species of flying squirrel , many which could be mistaken by someone just looking up “flying squirrel in Namdapha”.
The Wiki photo could be a much more common red giant flying squirrel:

It doesn’t look like an easy mistake from the ones shown on Wikipedia, but there are subspecies which do look similar. There is even a scientific paper just about this common mistake:

Sourcing the Wiki photo

The photographer has uploaded many photos of butterflies, which Namdapha National Park is known for. According to the metadata, he took the photo in 2013 and added it to Wikipedia in late 2017.

He replied to my email quickly:

I got this image from the very type locality of the squirrel , Deban ,Namdapha NP. Let me confirm with few other friends who can get a confirmation on this and I will get back to you one this. In field this one looks very much like namdapha flying squirrel .I will keep you posted .

The reference to Deban does match something that I’d seen in another article:

Biswamoyopterus biswasi was previously collected at an elevation of 350 m in Deban and until now was only known from the western slope of the Patkai Range in the catchment area of the Noa Dihing River in Namdapha, India

Sourcing the copyright photo

Photos of a fiery orange squirrel top Google Image results. An uncropped version includes a copyright notice and the name of the photographer.

Before doing the deep dive and finding the original photos, I wondered if this could be the specimen squirrel posed as if alive, or a juvenile squirrel.

Because it appears first on Google Images, this photo shows up everywhere, including this presentation at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and a 2009 university lecture (I don’t know how old the photo is).

The photographer responded to my email:

The said photo I had taken in Arunachal Pradesh while on tour.

The said squirrel was found abandoned and rescued by the Forest Personnel’s and which was later released in the forest by the forest officials.

The said squirrel has been identified as Namdapha Flying squirrel.

Keep in mind, though, that scientific paper about common confusion between Namdapha and red giant flying squirrels. This mistake persisted even in the park institutions at that time:

The specimen at Miao museum of Namdapha National Park cum Tiger Reserve holds a specimen of gliding squirrel named as NGS which actually is RGGS… It was corrected as RGGS only in early 2012 after our suggestion.

This photo is referenced (almost subtweeted) in the mistaken identity paper. Those researchers identified it as a Hodgson’s giant flying squirrel, which looks like a good match:

The Mukherjeee photos

Several sites had a collection of photos labeled ‘Namdapha Flying Squirrel’ but no other content. They look similar to the animal in the Wiki photo, but not like the copyrighted one.

I asked Dhritiman about it on Twitter, as it could be mistaken identity, or it could be someone else using and relabeling his photos. He replied:

The Soma Jha photos

This one is said to be taken by Soma Jha — it looks similar to the Mukherjee and Wiki photos (potentially red giant flying squirrel).

I found credits to Soma Jha in several research papers and birding books, too. Through one blog, I was able to exchange emails with her, but we didn’t clarify how the squirrel was identified.

Cruft

Some of the photos were generated articles which had combined Wikipedia text with image results for “flying squirrel”. I did some Google reverse-image searches. The newspaper article which I’d read, and many other articles on Indian endangered animals, use a stock image of a North American flying squirrel.

2019 Update: Researchers are looking!

A team from IUCN and Global Wildlife Conservation is raising funds to catch a live Namdapha Flying Squirrel!

2022 Update: High-quality image of holotype

After some back and forth trying to remove the image from Wikipedia, I left the matter alone. The only collected specimen (holotype) of the Namdapha Flying Squirrel was properly photographed in a 2019 paper and is now the image used in the Wikipedia article.

Possibly extinct

One last fun post — while looking for previous discussions about this on Twitter, I found this post by naturalist Vivek Menon:

Interesting:

Conclusions

  • People find flying squirrels in Namdapha but that doesn’t make them Namdapha flying squirrels.
  • Search Google Scholar for endangered and extinct animals.
    Not Google Images.

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Nick Doiron

Nick Doiron

Web->ML developer and mapmaker.