Weird Wednesdays: The Wondrous White Squirrels of the North

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Usually a stark-white squirrel is easy prey for hawks and other predators to snatch up and devour, as they lose their natural camouflage (Merrimack Valley Magazine)

Squirrel Appreciation Day was yesterday. If you didn’t catch it, then take a moment to wave hi to your local neighborhood tree rat. 

Tired of seeing boring ol’ grey squirrels? Why not stop by the White Squirrel Capital of the World? It’s an easy drive over to Olney, Illinois!  Yep, it’s the only place in the world where you can see hordes of white squirrels froliking about, like you’ve never seen be—

Wait, what? The real White Squirrel Capital is really Marionville, Missouri? No? It’s Exeter, Ontatio? Or maybe Kenton, Tennessee? Please, stop shouting, all of you! By the end of this column, by god, maybe we can narrow down the true White Squirrel Capital of the world… and figure out why the hell so many towns in North America are inexplicably home to large amounts of white squirrels. 

The answer to this question, and probably all of your deep-rooted childhood issues, of course, is genetics.  

Now, if you remember high school biology at all, then you’ll recall the simple Punnett Square: a four-by four matrix that calculates the possibility of two mating individuals’ offspring having a given trait.  

Alleles are the sources of these traits. An allele is a gene or set of genes that make up a physical feature, like hair or eye color, that can be found in the parental chromosome and passed on to the offspring from both the mother and father. Alleles come in pairs– one from mom, and one from dad– and what the offspring will look like is dependent on the nature of the alleles.  

A dominant allele will ‘blot out’ the other traits. If one parent has brown eyes, and the other, blue, then there’s a 50 percent chance at best that you’ll get one trait over the other. If both of your grandparents on one side have brown eyes, then the chance you’ll have blue eyes is reduced to zero. 

This is because the allele for blue eyes is recessive. If two recessive (blue-eyed) individuals mate, then their offspring will have blue eyes. If any dominant genes come into the mix, however, (like a blue eyed and a brown-eyed pair of mates) then the trait won’t show at all. However, the offspring will be a carrier for the trait – they’ll be brown-eyed, but have the genes for blue eyes lurking in their DNA, blotted out by the brown-eye allele. If they mate with someone who has that recessive gene as well, then, even if both of them are brown-eyed, their offspring has a small chance of having blue eyes.  

Got it? Take a few deep breaths.  

What this all boils down to is that a large population with a lot of recessive genes tend to pass on though recessive gene prolifically. This is why white squirrels are rare as hell. However, when you do find them, you tend to find them in groups, all chattering away, trying to sell you Lulu Lemon and drinking Starbucks. 

The squirrels’ white coats, contrary to popular belief, is not due to albinism (which is a genetic condition that results in a total lack of pigment anywhere in the body but due to rare, recessive mutation called leucism which is a partial loss of pigment.  

Usually a stark-white squirrel is easy prey for hawks and other predators to snatch up and devour, as they lose their natural camouflage. Population control like this would usually keep the leucism genes out of the pool.  

However, humans tend to fuck everything up when it comes to the natural order. Suburban areas have few natural predators, and when a bunch of humans with nothing better to do start seeing all these white squirrels and protecting them, they get ideas…. 

Like I said before, there are a lot of towns that call themselves “The White Squirrel Capital of the World”. ‘Cos if you don’t have any landmarks to draw in tourists, there’s gotta be something.  

Of course, these towns don’t take very kindly to other locales trying to outmarket them in the White Squirrel tourism industry. (Is there even an industry for that? I’m not sure.) Marionville in particular claims that Olney’s squirrel population was sourced from theirs, as a no-do-gooder stole a breeding pair when they visited the town in the 1800s.  

In any case, these towns take their squirrels seriously. Brevard, North Carolina, holds a White Squirrel Festival in the summer, as does Exeter. In Olney, they take it a step further by hosting a 5K along with their festival. They’ve also banned dogs and cats from running loose in order preserve the population and, if a driver hits a white squirrel, they’re slapped with a $550 fine.  

So, who’s the white squirrel winner? I’m honestly not gonna answer that, because I’ll probably get a lot of angry emails from people from the towns I didn’t pick. If you have some free time and need a road-trip plan, well, now you’ve got one. Stay recessive, readers. And stay weird. 


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.

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