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Meet the Black Squirrel

Thursday, 9 June 2011

You have probably seen the grey. You may even have encountered or at least heard of the red. However, have you ever seen a black squirrel? Take a look at this small but dark beasty of the forest.

This is the black squirrel. Out of the squirrel population of the United States and Canada perhaps only one in ten thousand is black. However, this is not a separate species in itself. It is in fact a sub-group of the grey squirrel and, little by little their numbers are growing. In fact in some areas they outnumber the greys. However, this black coloring is not a recent trend among the squirrel community – research indicates that in the days before the European settlement of the America the black squirrel was probably much more numerous than the grey.

Instead of being a separate species, the black squirrel is in fact what is known as a melanistic subgroup. Midwestern North America is their stomping ground although there are groups to be found in the UK (more of which later). Melanism is caused by an increased level of black pigmentation, a compound which determines color called melanin. This subgroup of the Eastern Grey has stacks of melanin and these melanistic traits are the opposite of albinism which occurs when flora or fauna have a lack of the compound.

It’s all about natural selection, so it seems. The Black Squirrels (I am inclined to shorten this to BS but it has rather unfortunate implications) can be found wherever the greys live. It is quite common for two greys to mate and to produce a mixture of black and grey offspring. It seems that the blacks were more common than the greys before European settlement because their darker color enabled them to hide in the dark forests which covered the continent at that time.

Then came the white man! Deforestation happened quickly and the lighter color of the grey squirrel became the one with the most advantage in the remaining space. The blacks do however remain abundant in the northern part of the range of the grey. It is thought that the black is common in the northern areas because it has a higher resistance to cold. Because of their darker color they are able to take in more solar radiation – in other words they stay warmer than the greys. So, they do not need as much food as the greys in order to keep their metabolism ticking over nicely. Furthermore their ancient advantage remains in the denser forests of the north. The darker they are the less easy they are to spot, effectively.

If you want to see a Black Squirrel you would have to travel to Ontario if you are in Canada. Staying on the other side of the border, then you would head for Ohio, Wisconsin or Michigan. With less chance of spotting one, you might get lucky in Illinois, Connecticut or even New Jersey as there are small populations to be found there too. If you are elsewhere in the world you may find some, but they are not native to the places and have been introduced there by the hand of man.

Even in Ohio, they were introduced rather than native to the area. In the early nineteen sixties ten were imported (legally) from Canada. When released they quickly outdid the original Grey Squirrel residents and now predominate. Although they have driven the greys away they do seem to leave other rodent species to their own devices. Some British readers will express satisfaction at the routing of the greys in Ohio – after all, the grey has essentially done for the prettier, smaller red in the United Kingdom so this is a taste of its own medicine, perhaps.

In Illinois you can find the Black Squirrel in Rock Island city. The story foes that they were first introduced on the island of Rock Island Arsenal. Unable to spread far, the water surrounding the island was a natural barrier. However, one cold winter was all that was needed and they were able to hop, skip and jump over the ice covering the frozen Mississippi River.

Michigan has its own legend too. The great early purveyor and all round strange body, Will Keith Kellogg introduced them at Battle Creek as he had a hatred for the local population of Red Squirrels. What they had ever done to him is anyone’s guess.

Kansas even has a population, again with an interesting legend attached. Local historians claim that they escaped from a travelling circus (with Dumbo, perhaps?).

In the United Kingdom, the Grey Squirrel was introduced towards the end of the nineteenth century. The Black Squirrel has, too, made an appearance there but debate rages around why and how. Some research has been done and it has been suggested that the Black Squirrels in the UK escaped from captivity and were not deliberately introduced. In the town of Hitchin the blacks are now as abundant as the greys. The escape trickster of the rodent world had struck again.

Do you have good quality pictures of black squirrels? Please send them in and we will happily publish them and give you credit.


Pictures sent in by readers

This one of a black squirrel and his wooden friend was sent in by Peter Rogers, Redwood City, CA. Many thanks Peter!

If you have pictures of black squirrels, please send them in - you can email us at taliesyn30@aol.com

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