Rare squirrel proves to be black sheep of the family

Darth raider

Posted: Friday, March 31, 2006

 

  An unusual black squirrel pays a visit to Alan Meyer's bird feeder in February in his yard off Douglas Lane in Nikiski. Meyer, who has lived at that address for four years, said he has had four brown squirrels visit regularly, but the black one - unusual to Alaska - only started showing up last fall. Photo courtesy Allen Meyer

An unusual black squirrel pays a visit to Alan Meyer's bird feeder in February in his yard off Douglas Lane in Nikiski. Meyer, who has lived at that address for four years, said he has had four brown squirrels visit regularly, but the black one - unusual to Alaska - only started showing up last fall.

Photo courtesy Allen Meyer

A nature lover from Nikiski is going nuts about a critter that recently turned up at a bird feeder in his back yard .

“It looks identical to other squirrels in size, shape and behavior, but this one is all black,” said Alan Meyer.

The squirrel he is referring to is actually a black-colored red squirrel, a species common in spruce forests throughout much of Alaska, but that is typically rusty olive to light orange or red in color.

“It’s not a separate species, just a separate color phase within the species,” said Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

This black color phase also is known as melanism, or a melanistic color phase, and is a genetic mutation that results in an increased amount black, or nearly black, pigmentation of skin and fur.

“It’s rare here,” Selinger said. “I’m not sure to what extent it occurs. I’ve seen pictures of black squirrels and albino squirrels in the state, but those were from around the Fairbanks area. I can’t swear to it, but this may be the first black squirrel on the peninsula.”

While color anomalies are rare in red squirrels, they are possible in any and all species, and Selinger said you don’t have to look far to find examples in Alaska.

“Moose and black bears both have been reported in a variety of color phases,” Selinger said.

Meyer said his seed-stealing, spruce cone-cutting visitor first showed up last fall, just before freezeup.

“I told friends and relatives about it, but they doubted me,” Meyer said. Adding to his frustration, the rodent disappeared to its nest for winter before he could get a clear photo of it.

As spring rolled around, “Poof. There it was at the bird feeder again,” Meyer said. This time he snapped a picture.

Meyer said he believes the squirrel is part of a family, since it shows up with four other normal-colored red squirrels. He’s not sure if the black squirrel is a male or female, though.

“It’s hard to tell because its belly is so dark,” he said.

The behavior of the squirrel hasn’t lent much to determining its sex, either. According to Meyer, none of its actions have been overtly male or female.

“The squirrels chase each other a lot. The black one gets chased, but doesn’t do a lot of chasing. It runs off when the others squirrels come to the feeder,” he said.

Selinger said it is difficult to interpret what this chasing means since there is plenty the squirrels could be quarreling over.

Not only are squirrels territorial by nature, but March is when squirrels mate. The black squirrel could be a female being pursued by a male suitor, or it could be a rival male being run off of a female by a suitor.

And since the squirrels are congregating at Meyer’s bird feeder, there is a resource to defend. The black squirrel may be a youngster being run off by older animals.

In any case, Meyer said he enjoys their antics.

“I put the sunflower seeds out for the birds, but I don’t mind the squirrels coming. I enjoy watching the interaction between the two. I live alone with a dog and a cat, so watching the feeder is cheap entertainment,” he said.

Meyer said looking for the black squirrels makes watching the feeder even more exciting than usual.

“I grew up here and spent a lot of time in the woods. I’ve seen tons of squirrels, but never a black one. I’m hoping it’s a female and will have babies just like it,” he said.

There is no way of knowing if the black color can or will be passed on to offspring, according to Selinger.

“It’s difficult to predict the genetics of something like this,” he said. There is no way of knowing if the genes that make the squirrel black also make it have reproductive problems or even sterile.

Selinger said it is equally difficult to predict the course of natural selection, but he postulated that being all black may give the squirrel a leg up in regard to avoiding predators such as hawks and owls.

“It will probably lead a basic squirrel life, but it may have a slight advantage at concealment by being able to blend into shadows and shady areas,” Selinger said.

“There’s really no way of knowing at this point, though,” he added.

Meyer will have to wait and continue to watch his bird feeder to see how the squirrel’s future unfolds. With each passing day he grows a little more fond of his furry friend and is considering naming it.

“Maybe ebony, or midnight or something. I’m not sure yet, “ he said.



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