by Ashley Apodaca
If you’ve never seen an all-white squirrel, take a stroll through Stonequarter neighborhood, in the West End of Richmond, Va. There you’ll find, on an average day, two or three per yard.
“They don’t act any different, they’re just white” says Josh Simpson a Stonequarter resident of two decades. “They definitely eat your vegetables, and mess with your plants. But I think it’s kind of cool…to say I live in a neighborhood with white squirrels.”
Stonequarter is nestled between John Rolfe and Ridgefield Parkways, and accessible from Cambridge Drive. It was developed residentially in the late 1980’s, but long-time residents will tell you, that the white squirrels have lived there longer.
“They first started, I believe, in the neighborhood across the street …and they gradually worked their way over and settled in here,” says David Meredith, a Stonequarter resident since 1992. His wife purchased their house when it was built in 1987 and has lived in it since.
According to the Merediths, the white squirrel population began in Shady Branch Trail, before crossing Cambridge Drive and into a three-street neighborhood known as Stonequarter.
View White Squirrels in West End Richmond in a larger map
It’s possible that the residents of Shady Branch and Stonequarter have helped the white squirrels survive and multiply.
“The population has definitely increased,” says Mary Andrews, a 14-year resident of Stonequarter. “When we first moved here the white squirrels were primarily in the front end of the neighborhood closer (to) Cambridge, and we’d occasionally see one or two back here, in the back of the neighborhood…. Now, we’ve got large numbers in our backyard and all around. There are loads of them.”
While not much is certain about the cause of the white fur, it has been determined that—at least around here—the white squirrels are Eastern Gray Squirrels. The trees of Shady Branch Trail and Stonequarter neighborhood have most likely contained populations of Eastern Gray Squirrels for centuries.
“The standard Eastern Gray Squirrel has a grayish color coat. There are different color variations on them; the most common one is a very dark, melonistic color morph,” says behavioral ecologist Dr. Peter Smallwood, a biology professor at the University of Richmond. Many biologists including Smallwood believe that white fur is a lesser common color variation caused by the same thing as black fur in Eastern Gray Squirrels—genetic mutation.
Smallwood has studied the Eastern Gray Squirrel since the late 1980’s. He says that while there has been more research done on the black color variation in Gray squirrels, the white variation may have developed for similar reasons but under different circumstances.
For a squirrel, black fur may increase life span and reproduction cycles by helping it survive. Black fur can camouflage a squirrel in certain landscapes and help it retain body heat in the winter—leading to a longer life and more breeding opportunities.
White fur, on the other hand, causes a squirrel to be more noticeable, something that’s bad in the wilderness but potentially good in a residential setting.
“I have not found literature published on this,” says Smallwood, “but in speculations with other squirrel biologists, (perhaps) the mutation for very pale fur showed up and under natural circumstances would have been selected out, but then you have people. If it shows up in say a park, where people go by, well that’s a recognizable animal and people become attached and make sure it gets extra food.”
As with most animals better health means better reproduction cycles, and as Smallwood says, “babies tend to look like their parents,” leading to the continuation and growth of a population.
Simpson and several of his Stonequarter neighbors agree that the white squirrel population has increased over the years, and like many in the area, he’s grown used to them.
“You kind of take it for granted that you see them every day, but everyone else who comes into the neighborhood for the first time freaks out and wonders what it is,” says Simpson.
White squirrels, while abundant in Shady Branch and Stonequarter, are rare. Sightings have been reported in other West End neighborhoods, and there are a few isolated populations of white-furred Eastern Gray Squirrels across the country.
View a collection of social media about white squirrels: http://storify.com/ashleyapodaca/white-squirrels-spotted-in-the-west-end#
Listen to audio excerpts of Dr. Peter Smallwood’s interview: