Frequently Asked Questions and other Fun Facts About Brevard and White Squirrels
Since the emphasis of this post is on answers to FAQ, I have left it free of illustrations. However, there are links to appropriate images embedded throughout. Look for colored text which appear underlined when the cursor points their way. Most of these are borrowed from other posts at this site. Questions are italicized and bolded. Answers are not.
I’m planning a trip to Brevard but have a very tight schedule. Where is my best chance to see a white squirrel? The key word in your question is “chance.” We do not keep our white squirrels in captivity. In fact, there is a city ordinance against that. Like all animals, squirrels have regular patterns of behavior over long periods of time but are very unpredictable at any given moment. Weather, hunger, and seasonality are just a few of the factors that may alter their usual behavior. So is human activity. In other words, there are no guarantees. The best way to ensure seeing one is to stay here for awhile. Although the white variant makes up almost a third of our squirrel population, some regions have none while others have more than half. Taking a look at the most recent results might suggest where to start. A new feature added recently ranks the 35 Sectors of the study area according to percent white and white squirrels per acre (click here for the rankings). But remember that many of these areas are residential with little visibility and/or parking . In addition, while most home owners are proud of their white squirrels, they might be suspicious of strangers walking through. Therefore, I would suggest trying “public places.” Silvermont and Franklin Parks have squirrels but not in large numbers. The best all around location is probably Brevard College which is also easy to find on N. Broad Street just downhill from the courthouse. It offers a large park-like environment with scattered trees for squirrels but yet good visibility for squirrel watchers. Within the campus, itself, the best areas are on the lawns surrounding the main entrance, along the creek, and in the area between the barn and the President’s house. Where ever you go, park the car and walk. The more time you spend on foot anywhere in Brevard, the more likely you are to spot a white squirrel. Happy hunting (with your camera, that is).
How many white squirrels are there in Brevard? First, the Brevard white squirrel is no longer restricted to the city of Brevard. Although released near Johnson and Main Streets (see Barbara Mull Lang’s account) in the early 1950’s they have spread by one means or another to over a fifty mile radius in western North Carolina (see distribution map). The annual Brevard Squirrel Count only covers a 3 square mile area following the original city limits (before any annexations) and is not meant to be a census. Not all squirrels will be out during the one hour count and not all squirrels that are out will be seen by the counter. Thus, the Count, itself, vastly underestimates the number of squirrels but it is, we think, an accurate estimate of the percent white. Using other methods we estimate that there are approximately 3-5,000 squirrels (white plus gray) in the study area. Multiplying that number by the percent determined by the annual count (now approaching 33.3%) we come up with about 1,000 white squirrels. Pretty impressive when you consider that the most other communities boasting a white squirrel colony can claim is a few hundred.
Are white squirrels a separate species? Not unless you live in Thailand or one of the Philippian islands (where all white species of tree squirrels actually exist). In all other cases, including here in Brevard, the white squirrel is simply a coat color variant. That is, they are part of the natural variation occurring in a very variable species, in this case the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensi), which also includes black variants in many parts of its range. Think of all the variation that occurs in our own species such as in eye or hair color; hair color in a squirrel may vary not just from individual to individual but from one part of the body to another (for more on this subject, see post “What is a white squirrel?).
Do white and gray squirrels interbreed? Yes (if they didn’t, then they would be different species). When it comes to actual mating, coat color is probably not nearly as much a factor as hormonal attraction. Squirrels have two breeding seasons per year, one in winter and one in summer; within those periods, mature females will enter estrus at different times. When a female enters estrus, interested males come from hundreds of yards away and camp out at her “door step” (outside her nest) without every seeing her coat color. Most accounts of “courtship”, itself, are brutal with little opportunity for females to be selective by any means, let alone coat color. Fortunately for her, she is only “receptive” and pursued by males for one day during each breeding period. During that time, she may be impregnated by several different males, none of which help raise the young.
Well, then, are they a separate race of squirrel? The short answer is an emphatic no! The concept of race is controversial in biology. When properly used it is synonymous with subspecies. Being members of the same species, subspecies are theoretically capable of interbreeding. But what has made them different is usually adaptations to different habitats. In other words, they live in different environments and are known as geographic variants and do not ordinarily mate because they do not encounter one another. In some cases, there is a gradual change from one part of a species’ range to another. This is referred to as a cline. Because there is no clear shift from one variant to another, the term subspecies is usually not applied. But if there is a sudden shift, particularly if there is a large geographic gap between them, the separate populations are assigned different subspecies names. None of the above applies to Brevard’s squirrels.
Are the offspring mixed? No, not regarding coat color. The litter may be mixed, that is, some white – some gray, but each individual can be categorized as either white or gray. Of course, what we call white in Brevard also includes a dark head patch and stripe down the back and gray squirrels everywhere have many different colors of hair including brown, black, red, yellow and banded (agouti). They even have a large patch of all white hairs on the belly. So in reality, our reference to white versus gray squirrels actually refers to two different patterns or distributions of hair. But these patterns do not blend together in mixed matings. Offspring almost always have one pattern or the other. In other words, coat color pattern does not blend together like when two different color paints are mixed. Geneticists would say that the genetic predisposition for coat color patterns segregate (separate) during sperm and egg production. The final result depends on which other genes they are recombined with during reproduction.
Are white squirrels albino? Not the Brevard white squirrel. In fact, few of the hundreds of sightings (click here for examples) we’ve received from around the country are true albino (you can email your sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org). Albino squirrels lack the ability to make the dark group of pigments generally referred to as melanin. Their coats are white and their eyes pink (or blue). The pigment in the eye of a normal squirrel reduces glare. Thus, albinos have impaired vision putting these squirrels at risk when leaping from tree limb to tree limb. But most sightings we receive report squirrels with all white coats with dark eyes. This condition is referred to as leucistic to distinguish it from albinos. Unlike albino squirrels, leucistic ones have normal vision. But in addition to dark eyes, the Brevard white squirrel has patches of pigmented fur so that it is not leucistic either. A typical Brevard white squirrel has a dark head patch and stripe down the back that broadens over the shoulder. The head patch can be solid, horseshoe or doughnut shaped; it may resemble a triangle, a diamond, deer tracks or even a widow’s peak (like Count Dracula). There is some evidence that this pattern is inherited (Burgin: Inheritance of Head Patch). Scattered dark hairs can often be seen all over the back. Thus, they have normal melanin genes but don’t activate them over large parts of their body. It is as if the region of white hair normally confined to the belly of a gray squirrel had expanded at the expense of pigmented regions, compressing the latter to a narrow band on the back. For more detail, see the post “What is a White Squirrel?”
Is the white variant recessive? Albino squirrels are recessive to the normal or wild condition. That means that albinos have to get an albino gene from both parents to be white. If you think about it, that makes sense. Albino squirrels are white because they make no melanin, the pigment responsible for most hair color. The so-called albino gene is really a defective melanin gene (a gene, whose product is an enzyme in the melanin pathway, doesn’t work correctly) and if the squirrel gets a double dose of defective melanin genes it will make no pigment, not even in its eyes. They will have pink (due to retinal blood vessels) or blue eyes (due to light refraction). But all it takes is one normal melanin gene and the pigment will be produced in near normal amounts. So a squirrel with one normal melanin gene and one albino gene will appear normal. The albino gene will be masked. That’s what we mean by recessive. The normal melanin gene is said to be dominant over albino. But most white squirrels where ever they are sighted are not true albinos and the genetics are more complicated. Because squirrels can not be bred like fruit flies (they require a small woodlot of mature trees to complete courtship), we have very little data to go by. But the rapid increase in numbers of white squirrels in Brevard since their release in the early 1950’s and their continued increase during the 14 years of the organized Brevard Squirrel Count suggest that the condition is dominant (click here for a more technical explanation). Dominant or recessive, the white coat must confer some advantage to its bearer (of course, such an advantage may not be coat color itself but some other genetic predisposition that is inherited along with it). Although such squirrels may be very abundant in some areas where they occur, the Brevard variant does not seem to be a reoccurring mutant that pops up again and again here and there, like the leucistic one does. Most known populations of the Brevard type are thought to be have a connection to one another by capture and release. This suggests that it’s genetics are more complicated than that of other white squirrel variants. For a more thorough analysis of how the Brevard condition arises in the squirrels that bear it and on the inheritance patterns of all the major coat color variants, see the post “What is a White Squirrel?”
How did white squirrels get to Brevard? A pair were trapped in Florida and brought to Brevard as captive “pets” in the late 1940’s. They were then “released” in the early 1950’s. They had then the same markings (head patch and dorsal stripe) that distinguish our Brevard white squirrels today. Once again, I refer you to Barbara Mull Lang’s account (click here) for the details.
Where did the Florida squirrels come from? There is some controversy here. Local folklore says that the squirrels were part of a circus. While traveling through northern Florida, the circus caravan wrecked and the squirrels escaped into a local pecan orchard where they flourished. The circus owners supposedly acquired the squirrels from Hawaii. This is where I became suspicions. Hawaii is an oceanic island with no native terrestrial mammals. As mentioned above, there are species of all white squirrels in Thailand and the Philippines but these are not only different species but in different genera (and distantly related ones at that). The likelihood that such species could be introduced halfway around the world and fully interbreed with the Eastern Gray Squirrel is very remote. There is a much simpler explanation. The squirrels are, indeed, from Florida but they weren’t introduced; they are native Floridians. Sightings of squirrels with similar markings have been reported from Kissimee and Orlando (see Melanie) in central Florida to Jacksonville and the panhandle in northern Florida. Recently, I have received sightings surrounding the Charleston SC area. Throughout much of this range they are rare but there are some areas where they are unusually abundant such as the aforementioned pecan orchard in Madison FL. The man who gave the squirrels to Barbara Mull Lang’s uncle was thought to be “harvesting” them for sale. A story implying an exotic origin may simply have been a marketing ploy.
Do white squirrels have other differences from gray squirrels? None have been documented. In every way other than coat color, white squirrels appear to be normal Eastern Gray Squirrels. They even behave in ways that would be appropriate for a gray variant but not a white one. For example, when approached while foraging on the ground, they will run to the nearest tree and “spread eagle” on the trunk. When a gray squirrel does this, it is camouflaged against the dark bark. But a white squirrel sticks out like a “sore squirrel.” Although I have received many causal observations of one or the other being more aggressive at back yard feeders, these appear to be individual differences in behavior and not characteristics related to coat color. Other differences in size or behavior have been suggested but not documented.
Do white squirrels get picked on? White and gray squirrels that have been raised together show no evidence of ostracizing one another. They forage side by side (see White and Gray Siblings in the post entitled “Overview of Findings”). Non-siblings probably show the same territorial tendencies toward each other, regardless of color, although this has not be fully documented.
During the annual squirrel count, how do you know you aren’t counting the same squirrels over and over? This certainly happens on a number of occasions. But there are ways to reduce its occurrence such as keeping a steady pace and doubling back as little as possible. While tree squirrels do not rigorously defend territories, they do have limited home ranges within which they do most of their foraging. After all, it wouldn’t make sense to cache nuts for the winter in unfamiliar surroundings. Familiarity with escape routes is another reason why squirrels are not going to follow you unless you are luring them with food. Sometimes doubling back is unavoidable and that’s when a little common sense comes into play. On the second pass, don’t count squirrels of the same color unless you see more of them or they are distinctive in size or markings. This will temporarily bias your results but, as mentioned below, will even out in the long run. Even when not doubling back care must be taken. Squirrels are quirky, changing direction and speed frequently. Particularly in brushy or wooded areas it is sometimes difficult to tell if you are seeing one squirrel whirling about or if the first one flushed out another foraging in the same area as often happens. The same rule with the same bias as for doubling back applies. The good news is that there is no reason to assume that counting a squirrel more than once is more likely with one variant or the other. For both it should occur in roughly the same frequency as that variant occurs in that area. Therefore, such errors will “cancel out” and have minimal effect on estimating the percent white which is all the annual squirrel count is intended to do.
How can I get white squirrels to release in my neighborhood? The city of Brevard has an ordinance against trapping or harming white squirrels. The Heart of Brevard and the White Squirrel Research Institute are located withing the city limits and therefore do not participate in such activities and discourage others from doing so as well.