A colugo is a furry mammal with a thin neck, a slender body, and large eyes. It is about the size of an average house cat, measuring between 15–16.5 in (38– 42 cm) long with a tail adding another 8–10 in (20–25 cm). Also known as a flying lemur, the colugo neither truly flies nor is it a lemur. A gliding mammal, it is able to give the appearance of flight with the help of a membrane that stretches completely around its body starting behind its ears, going down its neck to its wrists and ankles, and ending at the tip of its tail. Colugos have characteristics of lemurs, bats, prosimians, and insectivores; recent studies suggest that their closest relatives are primates.
Because of their unusual characteristics, colugos have been classified in their own order, the order Dermoptera. Belonging to the Cynocephalidae family, the only two species of colugo are the Malayan or Temminck colugo (Cynocephalus variegatus ) and the Philippine colugo (Cynocephalus volans ). Colugos inhabit the rainforests and rubber plantations in Southeast Asia, Thailand, Malaysia, Java, Borneo, Vietnam, Kampuchea, and the Philippines.
Colugos differ greatly in terms of their basic coloring. Their backs are usually shades of brown, brownish gray, or gray sprinkled with light yellow spots. Their undersides can be bright orange, brownish red, or yellow. In general, they have very thick, soft fur on their slender bodies. Their necks are long and their heads can be described as “doglike.” Colugos females are slightly larger than males. The Malayan colugo is the larger of the two species, weighing approximately 4 lb (1.8 kg) and measuring about 25 in (63.5 cm) from head to tail. Colugos have large eyes and very good eyesight, traits essential in judging the distances between trees. They have interesting teeth as well; for reasons unknown, their lower incisorsn are made up of ten thin prongs each, similar to the structure of a comb.
Many animals inhabiting rainforests evolve special mechanisms to enable them to move easily among the trees, thus avoiding exposing themselves to predators living on the ground. In the colugo’s case, this has been accomplished by the development of a membrane surrounding almost all of its body. On each colugo, there are three separate sections of this “parachute-skin.” In the first section (called the propatagium), the skin comes out of both sides of the colugo’s neck, down its shoulders to completely attached to the entire span of its arm all the way to its fingertips. The second section (called the plagiopatagium) begins on their underside of the colugos’ arms and spans its entire body, thus connecting the animal’s front and rear legs. The final section of this skin (uropatagium) connects the hind legs to the tail on both sides all the way to its tip.
Interestingly, the colugo is the only mammal that has developed the rearmost uropatagium section of its flightskin. The tails of all of the other mammals with the capacity to glide—such as honey gliders and flying squirrels—are free of the membrane; thus, they use their tails as steering mechanisms.
Covered in hair on both sides, this “parachute-skin” enables these animals to glide long distances— reportedly up to 426 ft (130 m)—while losing very little altitude. Although colugos have strong claws with which to grip branches, they are not skilled climbers. In fact, colugos are almost helpless on the ground.
Colugos have never lived more than a few months in captivity; thus, there is only limited knowledge of their behavior. One fact that is known is that they are strict vegetarians. Specifically, they feed on shoots, fruit, buds, young seed pods, and flowers from multiple kinds of forest trees. They pull the vegetation out of trees using their very powerful tongues. Colugos get their water by licking it from leaves and tree hollows.
Colugos are nocturnal. When the sun goes down, they move quickly, skirting the underside of branches. To get the height they need to glide from tree to tree, they scramble up tree trunks with a few, powerful jumping motions. According to observation, colugos often reuse their routes when traveling from location to location. In the Philippines, the inhabitants exploit the
Patagium— The entire flightskin of the colugo.
Plagiopatagium— The second section of the flight-skin. It originates on the underside of the colugos’ arms and spans its entire body, thus connecting the animal’s front and rear legs.
Propatagium— The front portion of the colugo’s flightskin, coming out of both sides of the colugo’s neck, down its shoulders. It attaches the neck to the arm all the way to the fingertips.
Uropatagium— The final section of the flightskin, unique to colugos. It connects the hind legs to the tail all the way to its tip.
easy hunting that this behavior presents; Philippine locals often wait on known colugo paths with weapons or traps ready.
During the daytime, colugos rest, hanging from the undersides of branches, in tree hollows, or in the shade of palm stalks using all four of their feet. Hanging in such a way makes colugos hard to see. Their brownish coloring helps to camouflage them further in the shady rainforest.
Colugos of the Philippines generally mate in February, although the mating behavior of colugos throughout Southeast Asia can occur from January to March. After a two month pregnancy, the female gives birth to a single offspring. (Although, on rare occasions, colugo females have twins.) Interestingly, because females can nurse more than one young at a time, they have the ability to give birth in rapid succession to stabilize the population. Thus, the female is able to become pregnant again before her young are weaned.
When born, the baby colugo measures about 10 in (25 cm) long and is fairly undeveloped; in fact, some authorities describe these young as “semi-fetal.” After a baby’s birth, the female carries it in a pouch which she creates by folding the flightskin under her tail. She holds her young tightly against her as she feeds; as she travels, the baby fastens itself to one of its mother’s nipples. The female generally carries the baby around everywhere she goes, reducing the baby’s vulnerability to predators. This relationship continues until the young is too large and heavy for the mother to carry.
The main natural predator of the colugo is the Philippine monkey-eating eagle, which eats colugos almost to the exclusion of all other types of food. Humans also pose a significant threat to these animals. People operating rubber and coconut plantations often shoot colugos because they view them as pests. Furthermore, colugos are hunted for their meat. Most importantly, colugo habitats are continually shrinking due to deforestation. While neither species is endangered, their numbers will shrink as their habitats disappear.
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Schmitz, J., et al. “The Colugo (Cynocephalus variegates, Dermoptera): The Primate’ Gliding Sister?” Molecular Biology and Evolution 19 (2002): 2308–2312.