Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

August 24, 2009

Lucky Black Squirrels

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:42 pm

Black Squirrels are inspirational creatures. Their sleek form and slightly skunky appearance are always cause for a second glance. Most people can tell you if there are black squirrels in their neighborhood even though they may be clueless as to the whereabouts of the Grey, Red, or Fox Squirrels.

London, Ontario, for instance, is known for it’s black squirrels. This Canadian berg has even been known to tout itself as the “Home of the Lucky Black Squirrels.” Although this is not the backbone of their public relation campaign, the creatures have attained the status of small fame in that community.  Back in 1961, ten of these fortunate dark squirrels were imported to Kent State University in Ohio where they prospered and multiplied on campus. I must admit that I’ve never heard of Kent State’s annual “Black Squirrel Festival” before researching this peice, but that would be because my kids didn’t end up going to school there. If they did, I probably would have been the first one in line to get myself a Black Squirrel Festival T-shirt (you know, the plain black shirt with white letters saying “The Black Squirrel Fest at Night”.

If you are a member of a community that hasn’t recognized its population of black squirrels yet, you’d better get busy before the truth gets out. Black squirrels are really grey. They are, in reality, melanistic versions of Eastern Grey Squirrels – genetic “freaks'”of a sort that express an unusual amount of black pigment, or melanin. Some show more black than others and many exhibit a lighter brown tail (see below and here), but all are darker than the norm. The normal coloration of this species consists of a grizzled light grey coat with a white tummy and reddish brown sides (see here). On rare occasions, individual black squirrel pups are born within normal grey colored litters. The black gene is trumped by the grey gene in most cases, so this genetic trait tends to wash out after a generation or two. In the overall eastern North American population, the melanistic varieties appear every about every 1 in 10,000 births, but this figure is very misleading.

In fact, here in the northern part of their range, the darker versions predominate. As you move further south in their range, the ratio of black to grey individuals flip-flops until you find that there are few, if any, black individuals found in the deep south population. There is some evidence that the black eastern greys are better able to cope with lower winter temperatures, although the reason for this is unclear.

Even though black hair absorbs heat better, their blackness alone doesn’t appear to make much difference. Studies have shown that melanistic squirrels can generate and retain heat better than their gray siblings (three out of four doctors agree). All Grey Squirrels, light and dark, have a “venous shunt” at the base of the tail which aids in the thermoregulation department. Well, all this is fascinating, but I believe the Londoners, or whatever they call themselves, have the real answer as to why there are more black squirrels in the north. They are just plain lucky, that’s all!

17 Comments »

  1. Aw, I love the “let’s rumble” pose! Exeter, Ontario, touts itseld as the home of white squirrels. I went there but didn’t see any white squirrels!

    Comment by Monica the Garden Faerie — August 25, 2009 @ 10:37 am

  2. Great piece! Venous shunt, eh? Who knew!

    Comment by Ellen — August 28, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

  3. Public Relations is all about pleasing the common people.-“.

    Comment by Zoey Diaz — June 30, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

  4. there are times that good public relations cannot be always achieved ‘~”

    Comment by Roof Helmet — December 21, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

  5. It’s definitely a rare sight to see a black squirrel as I’ve never seen one. Truly inspiring to see these pictures here on your site. Now I’ll be watching for them more in nature.

    Comment by Gary G — April 14, 2011 @ 12:28 am

  6. I would love to see a black squirrel upon reading this post. I might try to see one when I go to London next week. I hope I’d be lucky to see this rare color of squirrel.

    Comment by Daniel Browning, Jr. — April 14, 2011 @ 8:27 am

  7. We have black squirrels here in zip code area of 60047 (part of Lake County, Illinois).

    (Thank you for your blog. I’ve learned so much. So interesting.)

    Comment by Carol C — March 26, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

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