The evening scene behind Professor Phil Myers's cabin brings to mind puppet theater. More than a dozen people of all ages are gathered, quiet and mesmerized, around a miniature platform attached to a tree trunk. They point, whisper, giggle and gasp. Their entertainment, however, is not scripted or man-made. Rather, it comes from the frenetic, fast-forward antics of flying squirrels.

These small, nocturnal rodents race up and down the tree trunk. They zip on and off the feeding stand Myers has loaded with black oil sunflower seeds. Occasionally, a snap of leaves overhead signals the arrival of a new squirrel to the area. Every few minutes, a white flash in the air reveals one gliding from tree to tree.

Myers, who teaches Field Mammalogy at the Biological Station, answers questions from the assembled crowd, which includes his students as well as curious camp residents. Someone asks what preys on the squirrels. "Owls. These barred owls we're hearing." On cue, the bird's distinctive "Who-cooks-for-you" call sounds from 40 yards off. A boy asks if the squirrels are all babies. "Judging by size, there are both adults and young. And several family groups for there to be this many," Myers replies. At that moment at least 6-7 bodies (it is hard to count objects that rarely sit still and sometimes run over the top of each other) are visible on the platform and tree trunk.

When someone asks how he knew the squirrels would come to the feeder, Myers responds, "I'd like to say I was that smart." In truth, he first put the feeder out several years ago to attract birds and the red and black squirrels that are common sights in the woods. Only over the course of a few summers did he realize a host of nocturnal visitors were also coasting in to dine.

As Myers was eager to explain, the squirrels aren't actually fliers. Rather, a furry membrane between their front and rear paws allows them to glide.

Despite their decided dose of cutness overload, these squirrels are more than just adorable entertainment. They are one of nine species Myers studied for a 2009 paper in which he documented the northward shift of Michigan's small mammal populations.

While Michigan is home to both North American species of flying squirrels -- the southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans) and the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) -- their relative prevalence is changing. Volans used to be found mainly in the lower half of the lower peninsula and sabrinus in the northern lower and upper peninsulas. In the paper, Myers documented the northern advance of the southern flying squirrel's range and the simultaneous retreat of the northern flying squirrel. In fact, of the nine mammal species Myers studied, four were expanding northward from the lower part of the state and five were retreating further north. 

"When you read about changes in flora and fauna related to climatic warming, most of what you read is either predictive -- they're talking about things that are going to happen in the future -- or it's restricted to single species living in extreme or remote environments, like polar bears in the Arctic," Myers said in a 2009 interview about his research. "But this study documents things that are happening right now, here at home."

When home is the Biological Station, this means the southern flying squirrel now visits your feeder where 30 years ago it would have been the northern flying squirrel. For the audience behind Myers' cabin, this fact is almost as remarkable as seeing rodents sail through the night air.

Read more about flying squirrels on Animal Diversity Web, which Myers helped create.

Photos by Phil Myers.