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Odd squirrel piques interest

By Frank Vaisvilas If you spotted a fluffy white tail cavorting around the tree in front of your house, you're not necessarily squirrely. Dorothy Coleman captured such a squirrel with her camera. An adjunct faculty member at NIU, Coleman said she thinks the little rodents are a mutation that has suddenly appeared in DeKalb. Maybe. Peter Meserve, a professor of biological sciences at NIU, thinks not. He said they're a mutation of the fox squirrel and he has seen them in Tilton Park, as well as other mutations with totally black underbellies which he's seen at NIU. Meserve does acknowledge that it's unusual to see just one major difference in spotting or coloration with a mutation. The Natural Diversity Information Source, in Colorado, also describes the white-tailed antelope squirrel. It's range is mostly in Colorado and the "slightly bushy tail is whitish below and black to dark gray dorsally. While running, the animals carry the tail curved over the rump, revealing the flashy white undersurface." Though they are partial to semi-desert shrub lands, they are occasionally spotted in lowland riparian communities. Will the real white-tailed squirrel please stand up? Both Meserve and Coleman can be considered resident experts on squirrels in the area. Meserve has been at NIU 32 years and Coleman's been here many years also and her husband was a department chair at NIU several years ago. Lending some credence to both Meserve's and Coleman's view is a story the Lincoln Courier Online. The story, by Nancy Rollings Saul quotes Rev. Kevin Treptow, pastor of Mount Pulaski and Chestnut United Methodist churches. "I sent a note to the Department of Natural Resources," Treptow said. "They said it’s piebaldismnit’s fairly common in this region." The minister said, however, "I’ve hunted squirrels all my life and I’ve never seen anything like it." An online search by the Lincoln Courier reporter, however, revealed "reports of white-tailed squirrels in other areas including Morton and Peoria, and also in Indiana. Rollings Saul then turned to John Fulton, unit director of Logan County's University of Illinois Extension Office, "I'm not much into squirrel genetics, and I don't know anybody at U of I that is. I think it is a genetic trait that is recessive, but breeds through. The actual termnpiebaldism - means lack of pigment (which is different from albino, typified by pink eyes)." Peggy Doty, director of natural resources education for U. of I in the DeKalb area, cites two options - a limited trait for albinish and, among the black-bellied squirrels, a limited expression of ebonism. If those recessive traits became more dominant, they could result in all-white or all-black squirrels (and other animals), she said. Doty also noted that there is an influx of baby gray squirrels this year, and their tails are nearly white but will darken as they get older. In addition, she said the Quad Cities have seen a number of all-black squirrels. If you’ve spotted some white-tailed squirrels and have a photo - or another explanation - e-mail them to hbrockett@midweeknews.com.

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