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Black Wildlife – what’s the opposite of Leucistic?

November 23, 2013

Melanism

Black Squirrel (Gray Squirrel)

The last couple of posts have been about white wildlife, so naturally I felt that now was a good time to cover black wildlife.

If a white animal is called leucistic, what is a black animal called?  The answer is- melanistic.

Melanism is the fairly rare condition of having predominantly black pigment on skin or fur.  This is a mutation when it occurs on animals that are not normally black in color.  Melanism seems to be more adaptive than leucism because usually it is harder to see a black animal than a white animal (if the animal isn’t in the snowy polar regions, anyway).  Melanistic individuals would not be seen by predators as easily as leucistic individuals; perhaps this means more of them survive.

I’ve only photographed one melanistic animal species- Black Squirrels.  These are melanistic versions of the common Gray Squirrel, and calling them Black Squirrels acknowledges this coloration as a particular ‘color morph’ or phase of the Gray Squirrel species.  Here’s one I saw in a local park a couple of years ago:

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Black Squirrels are an interesting phenomenon.  Unlike leucistic squirrels, Black Squirrels seem to have been the normal coloration of what we now call Gray Squirrels!

The black subgroup seems to have been predominant throughout North America prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, since their dark colour helped them hide in old growth forests which tended to be very dense and shaded. As time passed, hunting and deforestation led to biological advantages for grey coloured individuals. Today, the black subgroup is particularly abundant in the northern part of the eastern grey squirrel’s range. This is likely due to the significantly increased cold tolerance of black squirrels which lose less heat than greys. Black squirrels also enjoy concealment advantages in denser northern forests.

This is a great example of adaptation at work!

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There are good-sized populations of Black Squirrels in certain areas of Canada and the northern United States (and even Britain!).  Some towns are proud of them.  I can attest to the fact that Ohio has a decent amount.  I’ve seen scattered individuals around central Ohio, and there’s a group in a certain neighborhood of Columbus I’m familiar with that has multiple members and can be seen together on occasion.  The majority of the time I see them however, they mix in with the resident Gray Squirrels.

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Here’s one that I see repeatedly in a particular patch of woodland in a certain park.  I see him more often than I don’t, so this must be this squirrel’s home.  Looks comfy enough 🙂

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Interesting fact- there are jet black Black Squirrels, and there are grayish-black Black Squirrels.  It depends on how many copies of the melanistic gene that a particular individual has.  Here are examples of both I’ve seen:

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The prevalence of Black Squirrels within the Gray Squirrel population has been estimated as high as 1 in 10,000.

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It’s an interesting variation and adaptation that goes to show you that nature is always pushing the boundaries.  Sometimes the results are fruitful and neat to see.

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. November 24, 2013 9:01 am

    Very good photos of an animal that is difficult to photograph well!

    I do question the 1 in 10,000 though, in Michigan, it seems as if there are as many or even more of the black phase grey squirrels as there are the grey phase. But, that’s just what I see in my travels, which tend to be where the number of the black phase is known to be prevalent.

    • November 24, 2013 4:22 pm

      I was wondering about that number myself, but there’s a LOT of Gray Squirrels here in Ohio, so many that it’s easy for me to not notice them much. Central Ohio has a good amount of Black Squirrels too!

  2. November 24, 2013 12:04 pm

    Ah, great to see these photos, Tracy! I’ve never been able to capture them on film. And thank you for the background info on these and the evolution of their protective coloring.

  3. November 24, 2013 5:48 pm

    An interesting post and pictures.

  4. November 24, 2013 5:53 pm

    Love all the interesting facts about the Black Squirrels. My husband and I lived in Kent for a while and we had a big family of Black Squirrels in our backyard. They were fun to watch, especially in the winter when they really stood out against the white of the snow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such playful squirrels before. They’d chase each other around the yard, and up and down and around the trees.

  5. November 24, 2013 7:05 pm

    Great captures of these beautiful little animals.

  6. November 25, 2013 12:24 am

    I am of course delighted to read about my kin.

  7. November 25, 2013 8:31 am

    Hi. Thanks for the information – something I never knew before. We see albino deer here from time to time. Jane

  8. November 25, 2013 6:37 pm

    The black is pretty, too.

  9. November 25, 2013 11:43 pm

    Fascinating. I was unaware of this. I’ve noticed that the pine squirrels we have here appear much darker in the heavily forested areas but I can’t remember seeing any pure black ones. I will look much loser at them from now on.

  10. November 26, 2013 12:57 am

    Hi Seasons, I have never seen a Black Squirrel, only Douglass Squirrels, Kaibab Squirrels, and the regular-color of Grey Squirrel. Interesting. Have a fantastic week and a happy Thanksgiving!

  11. November 28, 2013 10:02 am

    Our forests are dense and dark and I’m surprised that all of our squirrels aren’t black. I’ve never seen thought.

  12. November 30, 2013 9:55 pm

    Awesome post. I see an occasional black squirrel and never knew much about them.

  13. mary permalink
    December 2, 2013 12:28 pm

    Last time I was out to Zanesville, there were a bunch there in a residential neighborhood with lots of big old trees. Beautiful!

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