Black Squirrels: A Scientific Perspective

We’ve all seen them. We’ve all talked about them. We’ve even written about them. Wesleyan’s black squirrel population is a source of pride, fear, and gossip for the student body.  Despite their fame, we have never known the true origin story of the black squirrel. Until now. Just last year, a team of scientists from the UK and America published their study on the biological source behind this unique coloration. I’ve compiled all the important information below the cut, but I’ll give you a sneak peek here: it’s because these squirrels fuck.

The black squirrels we see are eastern gray squirrels with a melanism mutation. Basically, the part of their DNA that codes for fur color is different than in a usual gray squirrel, causing the fur to grow black instead of gray. The scientists who worked on this study extracted and sequenced DNA from eastern gray squirrels and fox squirrels, and found that the black gray squirrels had a gene (MC1R?24, if you care about that sort of thing) that was identical to the gene that causes melanism mutations in fox squirrels. This led them to the conclusion that black squirrels are a product of interbreeding between gray squirrels and fox squirrels. The black squirrels we know and love came to be because their ancestors had a kink for another species.

The scientists propose that the melanism may help these squirrels keep warm in the winter, due to black being the most efficient color for heat absorption. They also hypothesized that having a black coat could help these squirrels camouflage from predators, specifically hawks. Wesleyan’s got cold winters and it’s got hawks, so it’s no surprise that black squirrels have found a home here. The articles I read said that black squirrels account for less than 1% (1 in 10,000) of squirrels in the US, so we can consider ourselves lucky to have so many of them around. 

That being said, while I was doing research for this piece, I found this HuffPo article about the most squirrel obsessed schools in the nation, and they only gave us AN HONORABLE MENTION??? We’re getting beaten by YALE??!? And OBERLIN!??! Come on y’all, we gotta step up our game! I call upon all of you to wear your squirrel pride on your sleeves and show the world that we’re just as squirrel crazy as our squirrels are, well… crazy (Does anyone know if a student has ever been attacked by a squirrel here? I feel like there’s no way that hasn’t happened). 

Have any thoughts? Know some scientific facts about black squirrels that we don’t? Have an idea for how we can become more squirrel-obsessed as a school? Sound off in the comments below or send us an email at staff[at]wesleying[dot]org!

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