Rare recessive gene makes Western’s squirrels white

Lindsay Sainlar

Sitting high in a tree chewing on nuts and leftover cafeteria food, a small white squirrel watches wandering students trek up the Hill to class.

“I think they’re cool,” said Heather Boehler, a senior from Columbia Station, Ohio, with a smile about the rodent that made her do a double take. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

This unconventional form of the Eastern gray squirrel, known as the Sciurus carolinensis in the science world, has been turning heads and sparking curiosity around campus for decades.

Louisville senior Jason Dudgeon said the first time he saw the white squirrel, he called a few of his friends to describe

what he saw.

“I thought they were just strange,” Dudgeon said. “They’re odd-looking creatures.”

Biology professor Michael Stokes said the white squirrel phenomenon is not due to environmental factors, but rather a rare recessive gene.

He explained that the white hue is due to a lack of melanin, a pigment that adds color to an animal’s fur.

Contrary to what some believe, these white squirrels are not albino. Stokes said that, although these squirrels don’t have melanin to color their fur, they still have pigmented eyes. True albino squirrels would have red eyes.

According to biology professor Albert Meier, the odds of an albino squirrel being born in a litter are close to one in 100,000.

Stokes predicted that the white squirrels have been roaming the hilly terrain of Western for about 30 years.

“We’re not sure how they got here, but I’ll tell you how it usually happens,” Stokes said. “When you see them, especially around a college campus or parks, somebody brought them in because they thought it would be neat to have white squirrels around.”

Stokes has seen white squirrels all over Bowling Green, from the 31-W Bypass to Cabell Drive.

Meier said that white squirrels rarely survive in the wild because they can’t easily hide. But on a college campus, they are less likely to be consumed by other animals.

“The white carries with it some issues,” Stokes said. “Obviously they stand out, they’re not as well camouflaged, so they are more prone to predator attacks.”

Popular with both predators and Bowling Green residents alike, the white squirrels are a quaint campus curiosity.

“It’s just nice having something different around,” Stokes said. “I’m susceptible to that just like everybody else is.”

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