Black squirrels, a rare and fascinating mutation born from the crossing of two different species

It can be truly surprising to be able to observe an animal showing off an unusual color of its fur. On the other hand, we are used to foxes being red, pandas being black and white, and lobsters being red. Yet there have been several sightings of animals with a different coat color than usual. Blue lobsters, for example, may occasionally surface in fishermen’s traps; a pink dolphin was spotted in Louisiana in 2007 (and has been seen a few other times since then); in China’s Shaanxi province, a cute brown and white panda greeted zoo visitors. In short, when it comes to anomalies, nature spares no one – not even squirrels! Black squirrels, in fact, are yet another genetic mutation of an animal that usually sports different colors. 

via BMC Evolutionary Biology

Flickr / Airwolfhound

Black squirrels have mostly been spotted in the UK and US, and their presence has always been a bit of a mystery. Now scientists have tried to give an explanation to this particular anomaly. Like many animals that have unusual color combinations, black squirrels are the result of a genetic mutation. Researchers from Anglia Ruskin University , the University of Cambridge and the  Virginia Museum of Natural History collaborated on a joint project that tested the DNA of squirrels. The findings,  published in BMC Evolutionary Biology , showed that the black squirrel arose from crossbreeding between the common gray squirrel and the fox squirrel. The black squirrel, then, is actually a gray squirrel with a defective pigment gene carried by the fox squirrel, which turns the shade of their fur into a darker one.

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Black fur may offer squirrels living in colder regions some benefits, as black is able to absorb and retain heat more, giving them a slight evolutionary advantage. In North America, black squirrels are rare  ― there are an estimated 1 in 10,000 of them. In 1961, students at  Kent State University in Ohio released photos of 10 black squirrels captured by Canadian authorities. Squirrels now populate campus and have become the school’s unofficial mascot. Their coloration could help them hide from predators, which could come in handy at Kent State since the campus is also home to hawks.

In short, the “mystery” of the black squirrels now seems to be solved.

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