What are Colugos

Dermoptera means ‘skin-wing’ and this order of mammals have modified their bodies towards flight, although it isn’t true flight but rather gliding. They have done this independently from the bats who are the only mammals to have attained true flight, and independently from the flying squirrels (order rodentia) and the marsupial gliders. There are only two known species in this rare and unusual group of mammals. Their common name is flying lemurs but since they can only glide and they only superficially resemble lemurs, it is best to call them by their spanish name, Colugo.

Colugos are found in the forests of Southeast Asia and southern Phillipines down to the islands of Java and Borneo. The slightly smaller Phillipino species is Cynocephalus volans while the larger Malaysian species is named Cynocephalus variegatus. Both species are about the size of a cat. They have thin membranes stretching on each side on their bodies from their front legs to the hind legs and on to the tail. When they spread their legs and leap from high trees, they can glide for up to a hundred meters with considerable maneuverability if not true flight. They are vegetarians, feeding on the fruits, flowers and leaves of their rainforest home. Their ‘wings’ or capes are used to escape predators and get to new feeding grounds without the danger of descending to the forest floor. Their main predators are Eagles and men, who hunt them for meat and fur.

Because they are so adapted for their gliding, canopy-dwelling life-style, colugos are clumsy on the ground. Their claws are long, curved and sharp, adapted for grabbing and holding onto swaying limbs, so they have trouble walking. They are nocturnal, hiding in refuges in the daytime and coming out at dusk to look for food. They have large black eyes adapted for sight in low light levels. They are solitary animals and get aggressive if they end up in the same tree.

So where did they come from? It is probable that they evolved from the Insectivora and in fact they were classified as Insectivora when first discovered. It is also possible that they are descended from primitive primates like the lemurs that they superficially resemble. Only DNA testing will solve that puzzle.

A female colugo produces one young at a time, which clings to her stomach while she climbs and glides through the treetops. Mama colugo can fold her flaps around the baby to protect it, making a pouch when it’s raining or cold.

Like all rainforest species, the greatest danger to the survival of colugos is habitat destruction by humans. Here is yet another small, harmless species threatened by our burgeoning population and by simple greed. It is to be hoped that we will protect these forests before these and so many other species become extinct.

For more information: http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Dermoptera.html