LATE LAST SEPTEMBER, I RECEIVED A MESSAGE ON INSTAGRAM ABOUT AN INTERESTING WILDLIFE ENCOUNTER IN TOWN. GIVEN THE MONTH, YOU MIGHT GUESS IT INVOLVED A TESTOSTERONE-FILLED BULL ELK GEARING UP FOR THE RUT, OR PERHAPS A SCHOOL FIELD RUN-IN WITH A FEISTY CANADA GOOSE MAKING ITS WAY SOUTH. BUT THIS ONE SURPRISED ME. DRIVING BY THE BALL DIAMONDS AT CENTENNIAL PARK, A JASPER LOCAL SAW A NORTHERN FLYING SQUIRREL SAIL INTO A MOVING CAR THEY WERE FOLLOWING AND BOUNCE OFF ONTO THE GRASS. AFTER MAKING SURE IT SURVIVED, SHE SENT ME A PHOTO TO CONFIRM. THERE IT WAS, STARING BACK AT THE CAMERA WITH ITS LARGE EYES GLOWING UNDER THE STREETLAMP.
Flying squirrels don’t get the same attention garnered by a lot of Jasper wildlife. They are elusive and nocturnal, their activity limited to the night hours close to dusk and dawn. They are thought to be so adapted to night life that their fur glows fluorescent pink in infrared light, a trait unique to them in the family of squirrel species and quite rare among mammals. The colouring may help them navigate, communicate or blend-in with their surroundings – it’s something that researchers are trying to figure out. But regardless of their infra-pink sheen, one thing is for certain: darkness is essential to their lives.
They aren’t alone. Many wildlife species depend on the dark. Little brown bats, a species at risk found here in Jasper, are nocturnal. Right now, they’re roosting in caves, trees and even buildings during the day. As day turns to night, they emerge to feast on insects, including those blood thirsty mosquitos that pester us at dusk. Thank you bats! They don’t like a lot of artificial light at night though, and tend to avoid areas that are lit up like a Christmas tree. Light pollution, among other factors, is a major threat to their survival.
It’s one of the reasons why dark sky preserves are so important. Not only are they a place for humans to connect with the night sky and reinforce our ancestral relationship with the cosmos, but they are critical habitat for the many beings that have evolved in harmony with the cycles of light and dark. Scientifically, our understanding of these relationships is still developing. But we already know that artificial night light interferes in many ways, such as disrupting bird and sea turtle migration, and even affecting where and how cougars hunt mule deer.
Fortunately, in most parts of Jasper National Park it is blissfully dark at night. Wildlife moves with the cycle of the days and seasons. Even fish! One night this fall, thousands of mountain whitefish will begin their migration into Lac Beauvert from the Athabasca River. Night travel will afford them protection from the keen eyes of osprey and eagles as they wiggle their way up the shallow outlet stream to the emerald waters where they will spend the rest of their lives. Only they will know the date on which this journey begins. They will follow the ancient rhythms of the seasons, their backs flashing silver in a sliver of moonlight as they make their way home under the cover of darkness.