How Rare Are White Squirrels?

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • There are two kinds of white squirrels, those caused by albinism and those caused by leucism
  • Albinism is a congenital condition caused by an absence of melanin; a white albino squirrel can be spotted because of its red eyes
  • Leucism is a condition that causes a partial loss of pigmentation that affects the skin and hair but not the eyes, so while the squirrel’s fur may be white, its eyes will remain dark
  • Rob Nelson, an ecologist from the University of Hawaii, has taken on the mission of finding out just how rare white squirrels actually are
  • Over a period of three years, Nelson received close to 700 reports of white squirrel sightings; he’s asking citizen scientists to report any white squirrels that they see

In the U.S., squirrels are far from a rarity. They can be spotted across the U.S. with such abundance in numbers that, despite their cute faces and bushy tails, they’re sometimes viewed as pests. While you’ve probably seen more than a few squirrels in your day, most of them gray or red in color, one sight that’s far more unusual is a squirrel with white fur.

In the wild, having a white coat is like a beacon calling out to predators (unless you happen to live in a snow-covered locale), which means it’s not something that’s found very often. White squirrels, however, can and do exist. There are even several cities in North America where they seem to flourish.

Rob Nelson, an ecologist from the University of Hawaii, has taken on the mission of finding out just how rare white squirrels actually are, and he’s calling for the help of anyone who has spotted a white squirrel in their own backyard.

What Causes Squirrels To Be White?

There are two kinds of white squirrels, those caused by albinism and those caused by leucism. Albinism is a congenital condition caused by an absence of melanin, which gives color to the skin, hair and eyes. A white albino squirrel can be spotted because of its red eyes, which contain no color and therefore appear red due to the underlying blood vessels.

Leucism is a condition that causes a partial loss of pigmentation that affects the skin and hair but not the eyes, so while the squirrel’s fur may be white (or have patches of white), its eyes will remain dark. Typically, a sighting of a white squirrel is considered rare — how rare is a question that Nelson and colleagues are trying to figure out.

Over a period of three years, Nelson received close to 700 reports of white squirrel sightings. He estimates that only about 20 to 30 percent are albinos while the rest are what he calls “white morphs,” which probably have leucism.

Most of the reports involve eastern gray squirrels and occurred in the Midwest or Eastern U.S., although a handful of sightings occurred on the West coast as well. According to Nelson, “ … [A] white morph … [is] caused by a different gene [than albinism]. It is a naturally occurring trait of eastern grey squirrels that is very, very rare.”1

Why Do Some Cities Have Regular White Squirrel Populations?

In the U.S. and Canada, five cities claim to be the unofficial “home of the white squirrel,” including:2

  • Marionville, MO
  • Brevard, NC
  • Olney, IL
  • Kenton, TN
  • Exeter, Ontario Canada

There are varying reports of how white squirrels came to be regulars in these locales, but in Brevard, North Carolina it’s said that the trend started after pet white squirrels escaped or were intentionally released into the wild.3

In Marionville, Missouri, meanwhile, a number of theories are floating around, including that the white squirrels may have escaped from a circus traveling through the town or could have been the outcome of an experiment by an early settler, who was known to crossbreed animals. There’s also a story that suggests the white squirrels in Olney, IL came to be after a pair were kidnapped from Marionville and later sold to Olney.4

Even in areas with established white squirrel communities, however, their numbers would probably naturally dwindle without some extra help from residents. In Marionville, members of the Lions Club planted 2,500 nut-bearing trees to provide food for the squirrels, and residents are encouraged to feed them.

Squirrel predators, including feral cats, have been trapped to protect the white squirrels, as have gray squirrels, which have been relocated out of town. Fines were also put in place and it was made illegal to harm a white squirrel.

Lonnie Hanson, a resource scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, told Rural Missouri, “In the wild you don’t get colonies of white squirrels … With a city like that [Marionville], with fewer predators and somewhat of an artificial situation, they just seem to be able to proliferate and do pretty well.”5

Interestingly, it’s also believed that gray squirrels were intentionally released into urban areas in the 1800s in order to create a sense of peace and calm and bring nature into the city.6,7 Much like is being done to protect white squirrel colonies today, nut-bearing trees were planted as a food source and residents were encouraged to provide food and shelter for the animals. The urban squirrel populations took off and the rest, as they say, is history.

Have You Seen a White Squirrel?

Aside from their striking color, white squirrels are no different from the common gray squirrels seen across the U.S. You may even very occasionally spot a black squirrel, which is a gray squirrel with a condition known as melanism, which leads to a darkening of color due to excessive melanin production.

While Nelson says most of the white squirrel reports he’s received are eastern gray squirrels, he believes some may be fox squirrels, which turn a blonde color. If you’ve seen an unusually colored squirrel, Nelson wants to know about it as part of his White and Albino Squirrel Research Initiative.

You can play the role of citizen scientist to report your white squirrel sighting, which may help to further not only our understanding of white squirrels but also reveal where they’re most likely to be found.

Click Here and be the first to comment on this article
Post your comment