The advent of spring brings with it one of the first animals to be admitted to Antler Ridge Wildlife Sanctuary, squirrels.
Worldwide there are nearly 300 different species of squirrels, New Jersey is home to four: the red squirrel, the northern flying squirrel, the southern flying squirrel and most abundant, the eastern gray squirrel.
There are two other squirrels worth mentioning: white squirrels and black squirrels. Though they are unique looking, both squirrels are sub-groups of the eastern gray squirrel. A white squirrel is an albino gray squirrel, while the black squirrel is the result of a genetic mutation that causes excessive pigmentation.
Eastern gray squirrels are scatter-hoarders, meaning they bury numerous seeds, nuts, and acorns in random locations for later recovery. Gray squirrels have evolved a detailed spatial memory and recover between 40%-80% of the nuts they bury. The acorns that are lost are not really lost at all; they simply grow into new trees. While you might associate them with raiding your bird feeder, the grey squirrel is one of the most ecologically essential natural forest regenerators that we have.
When it comes to climbing, squirrels have few rivals. Squirrels have a flexible ankle joint which allows their foot to rotate almost 180 degrees, making it possible to descend headfirst down trees.
Red squirrels are smaller than grey squirrels and generally not as abundant in New Jersey. They are most often found in coniferous forests. Instead of relying on scatter-hoarding like the gray squirrel, red squirrels are lauder-hoarders concentrating their food stash in one location. Red squirrels are known for vigorously defending their territory. If you hear one chattering at you, chances are you have wandered too close to their food stash. Red squirrels are excellent swimmers and are also known to tap sugar maple trees for a sweet treat.
Unlike New Jersey’s other two species of squirrels, flying squirrels are nocturnal. Despite their name, flying squirrels do not actually fly. Instead, they glide with the help of a patagium, a membrane of skin that stretches from their wrist to their ankle.
Squirrels do not hibernate, however during the winter flying squirrels can reduce their metabolic rate and body temperature to conserve energy and will nest with other flying squirrels to stay warm.
One other interesting note, researchers have found that flying squirrels fluoresce a neon pink under ultra-violet light. They have no answer yet for why this occurs.
Squirrels are one of the few animals known to seek assistance from humans if in trouble. If you do come across an injured or orphaned squirrel (or any other wild animal), please contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator immediately.