To the average observer, the common squirrel might seem a little, well, common. Not so, say the inhabitants of Lazo, Russia. In this small rural village, a pine cone shortage drove the area’s indigenous black squirrels to desperate measures. As a stray dog passed by, a group of squirrels led an ambush, and, in under a minute, “literally gutted” the dog, as one area resident described the incident. Not too bad for a garden-variety rodent.
The word “squirrel” means literally “tail that casts a shadow,” and may refer to any member of the family Sciuridae. In common parlance, however, squirrels are usually members of the genera Sciururus and Tamiasciurus. While chipmunks, marmots, and prairie dogs fall within the term’s scientific scope, rarely do we recognize the close relationship between these animals and the friendly, loving creatures that forage our oak trees looking for nuts.
In urban areas, the North American (or eastern) gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) reigns supreme. Despite the name, the gray squirrel actually encompasses subspecies of many different colors, including the aforementioned black squirrel, whose darker skin allows for better heat absorption in frigid climates. The black squirrel is the unofficial mascot of Kent State University, which boasts a burgeoning population of black squirrels, all descendants of ten progenitors imported from Canada.
Also popular is the albino (or white) squirrel, a rare but fascinating subspecies produced by genetic mutation. Albinism in squirrels occurs at a rate of one per 100,000 births, approximately half the human conjoined twin birth rate. The odds of finding an albino squirrel in the wild are even lower, because the albino squirrel’s inferior camouflaging abilities makes it an easy target for predators. Where albino squirrels reside, however, they quickly gain fame. The BBC maintains an online collection of albino squirrel photographs, and numerous college campuses feature chapters of the Albino Squirrel Preservation Association.
However, not everyone is happy with the pervasiveness of these clever critters. In the United Kingdom, government officials recently announced their intention to begin controlling the gray squirrel population. Gray squirrels can carry the dreaded Squirrelpox, a disease lethal to the UK’s native red squirrels, and compete with red squirrels and dormice for natural resources.
“Squirrels rock my socks right now,” says one senior at my high school. With proper protection of our cities’ parks and woodland resources, squirrels can continue rocking the socks of generations to come.