On White Squirrels: No, Not Albino

The whispering started again. I was not surprised as I had seen this behavior dozens if not hundreds of times before. I knew that my talk on the geology of the blue hole at Lost River Cave was about to take a back seat. It usually starts with one person quietly and politely nudging someone they came with, then whispering while pointing behind me. Next it spreads, more nudging and pointing and before long the planned speech has been completely upstaged by Flake, one of our resident white squirrels. 

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I’ve learned, and now when it starts I will say, without turning around, “If you look behind me, you will spot one of our white squirrels.” The first question is, “How did you know it was there?” and then the Frequently Asked Questions start rolling.

A popular site in Bowling Green, KY especially on the campus of Western Kentucky University, and here at Lost River Cave, are our white squirrels. When I was in college I heard many ridiculous explanations of their origins. Some said it was an experiment in the biology labs, others said the fault was with the chemistry or physics students doing bizarre experiments. My all time favorite put the blame for the white squirrels on a grand art project by students at the art department at the university. 

The real explanation? Nobody can give a perfect explanation of the white squirrels, but there are several factors that could come into play that help explain our population of white squirrels.

To head off the usual first question, none of the white squirrels I have seen at Lost River Cave are albinos, they all have dark eyes, not pink ones. Tree squirrels have a large amount of variability in coat colors, one of those variations is the white coat. Generally in nature the white coat is selected against because it is not good for concealment in a tree canopy. In settings where there are few natural predators, like the urban setting around Bowling Green, white squirrels have an extra chance of surviving. It has also been proposed that the white squirrels are able to blend in somewhat in areas with lots of white buildings and light colored concrete. Finally, white squirrels being less common around the world than squirrels of a different color, they often get “encouraged” to survive by people. In some towns, they have actually made an effort to remove squirrels that were not white in order to increase the white squirrel populations. That has not happened here, but I know from experience that Flake attracts the attention of guests who bribe him to pose for a picture with treats that his poor grey cousins don’t get.

Fortunately for those who are curious about the white squirrels, our most well known white squirrel at Lost River Cave likes to hang out in an area easily accessible by guests. As you head down the trail towards our big bridge, just as you start to walk under a tree canopy is Flake’s favorite hangout. These last few weeks in the afternoon I have seen him perched on a dead branch of an eastern red cedar there working on opening a walnut. 

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For more information on white squirrel populations you can go here.

And if you’d like to come meet Flake, come visit us at Lost River Cave

 

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Kev on October 10, 2013 at 11:26 am

    I remember seeing these squirrels for the first time when I attended WKU. I mistakenly believed that they were albino. Thanks for clearing that up. 🙂

    Reply

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