This post comes by way of an assignment. After seeing an albino squirrel in a Redgannet post, The Management wrote to me suggesting that they would like one of those. Now perhaps the word “suggesting” makes it sound like I have a choice and that would be true in the same way that I have a choice to retain full use of my legs or the accepted complement of fingers. Word is that Fat Tony himself made the “request” and Fat Tony has made more bloggers disappear than Google +. He had seen Mike’s white squirrels, but they just weren’t white enough. This was a serious assignment.
Snowy in February
The squirrel lives at Margate Cemetery, about 90 miles round trip from my house, so I had to coincide it with another reason for being there and it would be a couple of weeks before I could manage to get back. Fat Tony became impatient and arranged that someone should need the services of the on-site crematorium. This gave me the excuse to drive the 90 miles (though the black tie with green birding silks caused comment during the commital) and added a certain urgency to my step. When I arrived there was no sign of the white squirrel. “Fat Tony ain’t gonna like this”, I thought.
Snowy in February
I asked Mary, the Bird Lady who comes every week to feed the squirrels and birds at the cemetery, if she knew where to find the squirrel. Neither she, nor her friend Petra had seen “Snowy”, as she called him, for a couple of weeks. The pall bearers from the crematorium were hiding around the back of the incinerator, having a crafty cigarette. As the smoke from their Marlboro and from my friend mixed thickly in the air, I asked if they had seen a white squirrel, but none of them had seen “Snowy” since February. I found myself flexing my fingers while I still had that luxury.
Eastern Grey Squirrel
Perhaps the white pelt had already attracted the attention of another predator. “Snowy” was of course an Eastern Grey Squirrel Sciurus carolinensis, a cute, but destructive alien invader to British shores. Introduced from North America, it is bigger and more adaptable than the native Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris and has displaced the latter from much of its former range.
Now Fat Tony, as he often reminds me, is a reasonable man but when he gives you a job to do, that job had better get jobbed. The consequences of failure are catalogued in the bulky Unsolved Disappearances Folder in the police station in Queens NY and I didn’t want to end up as just another Management statistic. But where would I find another albino squirrel in time to save my gift for hopscotch? Penendon Heath, that’s where!
While I still had the capacity for perambulation, I had taken my son for what was potentially our last walk together before confessing to Fat Tony that someone had beaten me to his squirrel, when suddenly, on a post ahead of us, in a most unlikely stroke of luck, we came across a pink-eyed, white-assed beauty. What were the chances?
My son wanted to call it Snowy 2, but I felt Deliverance was perhaps more appropriate. We settled on Hawkbait.
So now Fat Tony thinks he has THE white squirrel. In fact he has A white squirrel which begs the question, how many of them are out there? Are they restricted to Kent UK? The other question that concerns me more is what will The Management and Fat Tony do when they find out about the red ones?
Albinism is a congenital condition whereby the animal is unable to produce pigmentation from its melanocytes (colour cells). Visual complaints are often associated with albinism and the pink eye is a characteristic sign as the lack of colour in the cells allow the haemoglobin in the iris to show through. Without the light-blocking property of a coloured iris, light is permitted to enter into the eyeball and is reflected back from the blood vessels in the retina.
Mike’s squirrels were described in one of the comments as “blond”. I prefer this as there is definitely colour in the squirrels’ fur, it is just very pale. Leucism is caused by an area lacking in melanocytes, resulting in white patches. Another appropriate term (appropriated from this link (along with anything that might make me sound as if I know about squirrels, albinism and leucism)) for Mike’s blonds might be “frosted”
Sciurus carolinensis typically has a combination of six hair colours mixing together to give the grizzled grey look of the type specimen that most of us are familiar with. The hairs are black, white and variously banded. Blended at different densities, as dictated by heredity, these six various hairs can produce lighter and darker morphs.
Jet black squirrels have a genetic 24 base-pair deletion resulting in a MC1R protein which is 8 amino acid subunits shorter than the norm (how d’ya like them apples?).
An interesting speculation is put forward in response to the success of white squirrels in places like Brevard County in North Carolina and Marionville in Missouri. When considering whether the colouration gives an advantage for survival and mating success, the answer probably lies with the local human populations who cosset their white squirrels as cute and promote them as a tourist attraction.
If you want to know about squirrels, anything at all, red ones, white ones, piebald even, follow this link and it will take you to the squirrel info motherlode.