Mutant White Tailed Squirrels Spotted in Portland
Strange squirrels with white tails have been cropping up across Portland. From the cemetery on Bridge Street to the River Trail, locals have reported spotting the odd looking critters. Despite their strange appearance there is no cause for alarm.
Fox squirrels, which are the most wide spread species in Michigan are most commonly shades of gray or brown. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, such white variants while striking are not a sign of illness. In fact, this coloration is a common mutation called leucism. A genetic mutation causes the skin and thus fur in a specific part of the body, such as the tail to not produce color pigments thus appearing white. Leucism is not to be confused with albinism in which an animal lacks pigment altogether including in the eyes leading to pink or red colored eyes. In contrast, squirrels with leucism usually have black eyes like their grey/brown fellows. Leucism can vary from completely white to specific body parts like heads or tails.
According to Prof. James Harding from the Michigan State University Museum of Natural History, while at first glance having a white tail might appear to be a big weakness for such unlucky squirrels the truth is more complicated. Such mutations more quickly spread in isolated urban type environments, Harding says, not in rural or forested areas where a bright white tail would tip off predators like hawks. In town where white tailed variants more commonly happen due to smaller isolated populations and inbreeding, the squirrels who would otherwise be quickly eaten often thrive.
Have you seen a white tailed squirrel recently? We’d love to see your photos.