Monday, October 06, 2008

Animal of the Week -- October 6, 2008

As I am sure that you are all aware, in the UK Red Squirrel Week started on October 4. And during this period we are all asked keep in mind the much beleagured European Red Squirrel. And so, in honour of Red Squirrel Week, although totally without ties or affiliation, this week's animal is Scuirus vulgaris.

It's may not be a coincidence that almost three years ago to the day animal of the week recognised the crazy crack squirrels of Lambeth— which, judging by the erratic behaviour of one that leapt onto my friend Talha while walking through Elephant and Castle the other week, have now spread to Southwark. But those were the eastern grey squirrels, invaders from the USA that have outcompeted the native red squirrel and spread diseases that have pushed our reds to the fringes of their former range. During Red Squirrel Week, we are asked to report sightings of red squirrels, particularly any ill looking ones that might have caught squirrel pox from their grey usurpers to help gain a better picture of the extent of the species and the extent of the disease. Your best chances of spotting reds in the UK are around Poole Harbour, the Isle of Wight, Anglesey, Cumbria, Northumberland and Scotland.

Outside the UK the red squirrel is still quite common, grey squirrels having failed to make it to continental Europe (although in Piedmont, Italy, a population of greys has become established and is squeezing the reds from their former range). Greys outcompete reds because they are larger and able to exploit more foodstuffs than the reds -- such as acorns, which give the native reds bellyache.

Confusingly, grey squirrels can appear quite red, and red squirrels come in a variety for shades, from auburn to black, from ginger to, er, grey. If you see a red-tinted squirrel throughout most of the UK, not in the areas above, it is probably a grey squirrel and certainly not, as has been suggested to me before, the result of cross-breeding between the two species. If you see a red squirrel in North America, it will be an unrelated North American red squirrel. The best way to spot a European red is to look for the ear tufts, these little fluffies have prominent squirrel nutkin tufts; whereas greys and other reds do not.

In norse mythology Ratatoskr is a squirrel who runs up and down the World Tree (from which the nine planes of existences hang), spreading news, rumours, and gossip, and ferrying isults between the eagle in Asgard atop the highest branches and the dragon curled up in Hel beneath its roots.

Many thanks,

Peter Hayward
Head Keeper
Animal of the Week

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