SCORES & OUTDOORS: Black squirrel makes another appearance

Black squirrel on a suet feeder. (photo courtesy of Michael Bilinsky)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I received an email recently from a reader/supporter, from China Village, who sent along a photo of a black squirrel he has seen around his home. He asked if I could do a column on them. I did a couple of years ago, but here goes, to refresh everyone’s memory.

I know they exist, but just how many are there?

Several years ago I had the rare opportunity to see a black squirrel in Waterville. In North America, black squirrels are uncommon, with one estimate putting them at a rate of one in every 10,000 squirrels. In 1961, students at Kent State University, in Ohio, released 10 black squirrels that had been captured by Canadian wildlife authorities. The squirrels now populate the campus and have become the school’s unofficial mascot. Their coloring might help them hide from predators, which might come in handy at Kent State: The campus is also home to hawks.

Black squirrels have been spotted in both the United States and the United Kingdom, and now scientists believe they know why. Like many animals with unusual color schemes, black squirrels are the result of a genetic detour. Researchers at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge University, and the Virginia Museum of Natural History, collaborated on a project that tested squirrel DNA. Their findings, which were published in BMC Evolutionary Biology, demonstrated that the black squirrel is the product of interspecies breeding between the common gray squirrel and the fox squirrel.

The black squirrel is actually a gray squirrel with a faulty pigment gene carried over from the fox squirrel that turns their fur a darker shade. (Some fox squirrels, which are usually reddish-brown, are also black.)

Scientists theorize a black fox squirrel may have joined in on a mating chase involving gray squirrels and got busy with a female. The black fur may offer benefits in colder regions, with squirrels able to absorb and retain more heat, giving them a slight evolutionary edge.

According to Mental Floss‘ Jake Rossen, black squirrels are relatively rare, constituting just one in 10,000 of the seemingly ubiquitous rodents.

Black squirrels are actually grey squirrels with a genetic mutation that causes them to have black fur. They are more aggressive and territorial than the gray squirrels, too, and the result is that the black squirrels will usually run all the other squirrels “out of Dodge”.

The new work builds on research from 2014, which found that the black fur is caused by the grey squirrel having a pigment gene with a missing piece of DNA.

In mythical folklore, the black squirrel symbolism does not mean good luck. Instead, it means solar eclipse according to some legends. Therefore, a black squirrel is the enemy of humanity and needs to be destroyed if mankind wants to enjoy the heat and light of the sun. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to go out and dispatch a black squirrel just because he’s hanging out in your neighborhood.

Black squirrels normally live up to a year, but some have lived up to 10 years. Black squirrels will eat anything they are offered, often feeding on nuts and acorns, any kind of seed, fruit, insects and even bird eggs. Mating occurs from December through January.

Black squirrels share the same natural range as their counterparts. In addition to their natural range, black morphs of eastern gray squirrels were also introduced into other areas of Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries. Black morphs of eastern gray squirrels occur most frequently in the northern portion of its range around the Great Lakes Basin. Conversely, black morphs of fox squirrels typically occur most frequently in the southeastern portions of the species’ natural range, the southeastern United States. Although they are found more frequently in those regions, the coloration remains uncommon in most areas that these species inhabit. However, black morphs of eastern gray squirrels forms the majority of the species’ population in the Canadian province of Ontario, and the U.S. state of Michigan.

Several municipalities and post-secondary schools in the United States have adopted a black squirrel for branding purposes, using it as a symbol and/or mascot. Some municipalities that have adopted the black squirrels as a symbol for their community have also passed ordinances that discourage attempts to threaten them.

If you’re fortunate enough to see, one enjoy. He is merely a gray squirrel in disguise.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

What is the New England Patriots logo commonly referred as?

Answer can be found here.


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