Stories tagged squirrels

Apr
27
2008

Do you see what it's eating?: Fingers.
Do you see what it's eating?: Fingers.Courtesy lavendarlady
There’s big trouble in Little America (that’s what all the cool kids are calling England these days, that or “Olde America”).

It seems that Cambridge, Little America, is being invaded by black squirrels.

“Why is this a big deal?” you ask. I’ll tell you why. First of all, you have to keep in mind that most large, dangerous animals were hunted to extinction in England hundreds of years ago. So, while we North Americans are used to bears, wolves, mountain lions and cheetahs wandering our streets, it has been centuries since most Brits have had to deal with anything more dangerous that, say, a bunny. Squirrels, while often smaller than bunnies, can be slightly more dangerous—if necessary, a bunny can usually be avoided by going up stairs, or standing on a chair, but this won’t work for squirrels. The squirrel is, after all, nature’s monkey.

But it’s not the presence of squirrels alone that’s dangerous here. Cambridge had squirrels before, but these new squirrels are mutants. Mutant, melanistic, black-furred gray squirrels, and they are slowly but surely running the old-fashioned gray squirrels out of town.

Melanism, simply, is a genetic variation that causes skin, fur, or feathers to be consistently dark. It’s sort of the opposite of albinism. Black panthers, for instance, are just melanistic leopards or jaguars. Melanism is usually fairly uncommon in animals—if a species has evolved its fur or feathers to be camouflage within its natural environment, a melanistic individual might end up sticking out like a sore thumb and getting eaten before it can pass on its genes. This sort of selective pressure is probably less significant for your average city squirrel, and having black fur may not necessarily be detrimental, and other traits could determine a species’ success.

Red squirrels used to be common in Olde America, for instance, until the introduction of larger, more aggressive gray squirrel. Now red squirrels are largely extinct in Britain, except for certain small pockets in Scotland, forced out by the brutal gray squirrel armies. Oh, wait, something perfect just happened.

Right, so now the same thing is happening to the gray squirrels. There’s some evidence that in large cats melanism offers a certain amount of protection from viral infection, so it could be that the new melanistic squirrel population receives similar genetic benefits. It has also been suggested, though not yet proven, that the melanistic squirrels are more aggressive than their gray cousins due to higher testosterone levels.

Also, I just dug this link up the other day, but it seems appropriate here too. In Russia a couple years ago, there was a report of a pack of black squirrels killing and eating a big stray dog. A choice quote:

"They literally gutted the dog," local journalist Anastasia Trubitsina told Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. "When they saw the men, they scattered in different directions, taking pieces of their kill away with them."

In short, it may be that Little America’s days are now numbered. Consider canceling vacation plans, or at least packing squirrel repellent.

Dec
28
2007

A cute little squirrel: Oh, my God, is that blood on its mouth?
A cute little squirrel: Oh, my God, is that blood on its mouth?Courtesy prairiedog
In the age-old, squirrel/rattlesnake battle of wits, another play has been made by the squirrels, one so devious that I dread the day that the tree rats use it against humanity.

Members of the same lab that discovered that squirrels are able to heat their tails (see the link above) have recently observed ground squirrels and rock squirrels chewing up discarded rattle snake skins, and then smearing it on their fur to mask their own squirrelly scent.

Juvenile squirrels and females appear to use the technique most often, being more vulnerable to snake attacks than adult males (or bull squirrels, as I call them - creatures that are not to be taken lightly).

The discovery just goes to show, once again, that squirrels are among the most resourceful, and fastest-adapting creatures. Hot tails today, tomorrow… guns? Still, I think squirrel guns are the least of our worries right now – as I said before, what if they turn this technique against us, their human overlords? What if they began chewing off our skin and turning it into disguises? We wouldn’t know who to trust! The hunter would become the hunted! It would be like that scene in Predator, where Arnold covered himself in mud to hide himself from the Predator’s heat vision.

This is really horrible news.

I need to go lie down.

Jul
23
2007

They’re watching: Waiting, patiently waiting, all the time planning their next move. Photo by Darragh Sherwin at flickr.com
They’re watching: Waiting, patiently waiting, all the time planning their next move. Photo by Darragh Sherwin at flickr.com

A recent study has shown that squirrels eating a large item of food are more vigilant, keeping an sharper eye out for predators than squirrels nibbling on tiny bits. Now, before you say “what an appalling waste of American taxpayer money!,” please realize two things:

1) The study was done in Canada.

2) Understanding animal behavior is crucial to protecting the environment.

The researchers note that humans have a tendency to change habitats as we move into them. Some of those changes may make an animal feel threatened when it is not – or feel protected when it is actually vulnerable. Inappropriate behavior can lead to declining populations, upsetting the whole ecosystem.

So, be careful where you spread your birdseed. A squirrel’s life could depend on it.