Ian and Marian Kelland from Stoke’s Bay, Ontario ask: Last July we saw this little white critter playing with the chipmunks, but we think it’s really an albino red squirrel. Is this indeed a red squirrel, and how rare are albinos?
“Great photo!” said Mark Engstrom, curator of mammals at the Royal Ontario Museum, when we sent them on to him. Engstrom confirms that your critter is a red squirrel (the smaller tail and sleek body are clues) and a true albino, meaning that it carries recessive genes and cannot produce melanin (the substance that causes animals to develop their skin, hair, and eye colour and patterns).
Because albinism is inherited as a recessive trait, it usually shows up only when both parents carry the recessive gene. Mammalogists estimate that about one in every 10,000 births results in a true albino.
Though Engstrom says he can’t recall having seen an albino red squirrel, it happens that albinism in members of the squirrel family (Sciuridae), for example eastern chipmunks and grey squirrels, is not uncommon. In the town of Olney, Illinois, where two albino grey squirrel pairs were released in 1902, a large proportion of the town’s squirrel population is now albino. In fact, Olney has adopted the white squirrel as its official symbol, posts “squirrel crossing” signs throughout the community, and protects the animals by law.
Albinos in the wild like your little visitor, on the other hand, are more vulnerable than normal-coloured animals would be. That’s partly because, without camouflage, they can be picked off more easily by predators. Another obstacle to survival is that certain genetic traits linked to albinism (poor eyesight and immune system problems among them) combine, putting them at further risk.