AUBURN, Alabama — In the novel Moby Dick, Captain Ahab searches for an elusive white whale. Now, Auburn University students and faculty have their own quest trying to spot a rare white squirrel scurrying up and down the trees behind the Fisheries building on campus.
Dr. Troy Best, an Auburn University biological sciences professor, has seen the white squirrel several times from a distance. There are a number of reasons to explain why the squirrel is displaying the unusual color, he said. Albinism, a genetic defect resulting in a loss of melanin, could be the cause. Leucisim, a defect resulting in partial pigmentation loss, is another option. The third possibility is that the squirrel is simply expressing a recessive gene for white hair.
“If you could get a look at the eyes, that would be a good way to tell,” says Best. “The telltale difference is if it has pink eyes.” Animals suffering from albinism always have pink eyes, because eye pigments that normally cover up blood vessels are missing. Leucisitic animals don’t have this issue, but the colors of their coat tend to be only partially white. Any animal with black eyes and a white coat has no major defect. The gene for white hair is just being expressed.
The gray squirrel, the species most commonly seen in Alabama, claims almost all of eastern North America as its habitat. A white squirrel in the far reaches of Canada might benefit from its unique white coat during the winter months. For the majority of the year and the region, however, a white coat is a disadvantage to a squirrel.
“White squirrels can be in more danger than squirrels colored to their environment,” explained Best. “This is one reason why white squirrels are so rare: it is not evolutionally beneficial, especially in places where it rarely snows.”
Chris Jaworowski, a regional Extension agent with the Forestry, Wildlife and Natural Resources team, has seen white deer and white turkeys captured on hunts. He agrees with Best on the coloration of the squirrel. “The trait definitely makes him pretty conspicuous,” says Jaworowski.
It is not the first time that a uniquely colored squirrel darted up and down trees on the Auburn campus. A few years ago, Best fielded questions about certain squirrels on campus with black spots. While, a new leopard-print squirrel would have made for an interesting evolutionary development, the spots turned out to be hair dye applied by a graduate student performing a behavioral study. This time, Best says the coloration is all-natural. “No human has done anything to make this squirrel white,” he said.
While seeing a white squirrel is rare, it is not unheard of. Biological sciences professor Dr. Michael Wooten says that albinism can be a dominant trait, but it often occurs seemingly spontaneously. Albinism is caused by a disruption of the melanin pathway, which influences skin tone.
“There are a lot of different genes for melanin, any one of which can be affected,” says Wooten. “It’s a sporadic occurrence in most cases.
Post written by Hunter Reardon