Anthropocentric BBC Rides Again

SouthAfrica_Zulu_Hunting_with_Dogs Recall the other week my grumbling about a BBC report which implied via its choice of words that squirrels were better communicators than humans? Well this week, the BBC reports (in an article concerning symbiosis between hornbills and warthogs)  that "banded mongooses remove ticks from warthogs, in what is believed by scientists to be the only symbiotic relationship between two mammal species."

Really? So is it that humans aren't mammals, or that the relationships between cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, rats etc and humans aren't symbiotic, despite the fact that both parties benefit? The non-human gets food and care, the human gets companionship (and with it, superior health and longevity). Looks like a form of symbiosis to me. Perhaps they just missed out the phrase " the wild"?

But of course, domestic cats and dogs originate from symbiotic relationships between their wild ancestors and humans; all modern dog breeds are descended from wolves that are believed to have lived symbiotically on the edge of human settlements. Symbiosis between cats and humans is believed to have originated in Egypt where grain storage lead to plagues of rodents that created an opportunity for symbiosis that still persists today.

Besides, there are several other instances of symbiosis between mammal species in the wild - one of which was even reported by a BBC nature documentary. Beavers are willing to share their lodge with other mammals; the other mammal brings in some food to "pay" for the lodgings, but this is still essentially a symbiotic relationship. Some naturalists report muskrats and beavers frequently share lodges in winter, a clear example of mammals of different species co-operating.

The point isn't that mammal-mammal symbiosis is rare, but rather that bird-mammal symbiosis is incredibly common. There are huge number of bird and mammal species that co-operate either in grooming rituals (such as one between the warthog and the hornbill mentioned above), alarm calling (as with antelope and Hartlaub's ducks, or red squirrels and jays), or mutual foraging (as with jacanas and gorillas, or egrets and elephants). Neither is inter-class co-operation restricted to birds-with-mammals; dolphins have been known to co-operate with sharks in order to corral fish - a relationship that connects species separated by 400 million years of divergence.

The point is that, once again, an anthropocentric viewpoint obfuscates the facts being reported: the BBC reporter who wrote the article didn't think twice about the claim that mammal-mammal symbiosis was rare, not once it was validated by nebulous "scientists". Yet humans are mammals, and we live symbiotically with a huge number of species - both as pets, and in many other contexts besides. If one is willing to count the conservationist's feeling of elevation when they act to preserve a species under threat as their "gain" in a symbiotic relationship with an animal being protected, the entire field of nature conservation falls under the remit of mutual benefit between animal species.

Squirrels Better Communicators Than You

The BBC recently published an article claiming that "A tiny rodent may have the most sophisticated language of any animal", in reference to the language of a particular species of ground squirrel, the prairie dog. Wow! This is a bold claim, since I was under the impression that humans have the most sophisticated language of any animal.

Anthropocentric views have not disappeared, as is sometimes claimed, but remain embedded in the most innocent of statements. It may seem that prefacing "non-human"  to "animal" in the above sentence was unnecessary, but why? One of the shifts in worldview alleged to have been brought about by evolutionary perspectives was precisely the positioning of humanity in the wider context of life - the admission, in effect, that humans are animals. But a great many people do not think this way. They still see 'animal' as a category set apart from 'human'.

Black Squirrel Map

Squirrel map.Sept08

It gives me great pleasure to present this map tracking sightings of black squirrels, whose range can principally be found on the eastern seaboard of the North American continent. Black squirrels are actually of members of the grey squirrel species but with black fur, and appear to have originated in this part of the world in Canada,. They have been sighted further and further south during 2007 and 2008. Please continue to send in your black squirrel reports and I will annotate the map accordingly. Keep watching the trees!

You can explore the complete set of sightings thus far on Google maps.

UPDATE: I have started a new blog for black squirrel sightings and other sciurophile nonsense. Please go to Shadowtail to report any black squirrels in your area! Thank you!

American Squirrels

Douglas_squirrel_on_cedar_tree_bran This is a request for help finding three specific species of squirrel in the United States: the Fox Squirrel, the Western Gray Squirrel, and the Douglas Squirrel (pictured left, in a photo taken from Alan Bauer's photography website).

There are hundreds of squirrel species in the world, but the ones that I have most experience with are the Eurasian Red Squirrel (which lives in parts of the British Isles, including the Isle of Wight where I grew up) and the Eastern Grey Squirrel - the infamous rascal which has made its home in many cities throughout the US and Europe.

Rik, another sciuraphile like myself, noted that I haven't posted much about squirrels recently, and that's sadly because here in Tennessee the squirrels are treated as vermin which makes them especially wary of people and hard to interact with. But my interest in squirrels has not abated - I'm just lacking the opportunities. When I next visit my family on the Isle of Wight, I shall try and get some red squirrel photos to share, but in the meantime I'd like to call on the internet for help locating certain species.

There are three US squirrel species I've not yet seen:

  • The Fox Squirrel is similar in size to an Eastern Grey Squirrel, but has the russet red colouration of the Eastern Grey Squirrel. It's range takes in the north east seaboard (New England and so forth), west as far as California, and allegedly into Texas as well.
  • The Western Grey Squirrel is found on the western seaboard, particularly in California and Washington. They are far more shy than Eastern Greys, but beyond this I'm at a loss as to how to distinguish them from their more common relatives.
  • The Douglas Squirrel is a small red-furred pine squirrel that lives primarily in the coniferous forests on the west coast of the US. They are small, like most other Red Squirrels, perhaps even smaller, and in the winter have ear tufts.

Do you have squirrels of these species living near you? Do you have photos or video feeds you can share? Can you describe ways to distinguish Western Greys from Eastern Greys, or Douglas Squirrels from American Red Squirrels? Where can I visit where I have a virtual certainty of encountering squirrels from these three species? Let me know in the comments!

Black Squirrel!

Black_squirrel Yehuda (who is currently in Canada) included this picture on a recent blog post... this is precisely what I've been looking for all around the world, although alas not yet successfully. It's a grey squirrel, but with black fur. There are populations in several places (including Canada), but I have not been lucky enough to find one yet. I must find an excuse to visit Ontario again... If anyone else has black squirrels in their part of the world, please let me know!

UPDATE: I have started a new blog for black squirrel sightings and other sciurophile nonsense. Please go to Shadowtail to report any black squirrels in your area! Thank you!

Lounging Lizard

Lizardfinal I found this fellow (and others like her) while hiking in the Smokies with my wife this week. Lizards are relatively unfamiliar to me (there are few in the British isles) but I think she is a Northern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus hyacinthinus); the lack of colour and the pronouncement of the bar markings suggests to me this one is a female.

Any budding herpetologists out there able to confirm my identification of this species?

Les Écureuils de Montréal

01_eastern_grey_squirrel_sciurus_carolin_3 Parc du Mont-Royal is one of the largest green spaces in the city of Montreal, and is situated around a trio of 200 metre tall hills from which the park takes its name. Covered in trees, both coniferous and broad-leaved, it is criss-crossed with trails and paths, affords spectacular views over the city, and is especially beautiful in Autumn. But naturally, what brought me to the park was the squirrels.

Mont-Royal is home to at least three different species of arboreal rodent. The largest and most populous species appears to be the familiar Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), which exists in large numbers. I can’t be certain of this, however, as the boldness of this species makes them far easier to spot and therefore may skew any attempt to provide an accurate census. The squirrel pictured above has a beautiful pelt, showing a touch of red amidst the grey (not uncommon for this species). Grey squirrel dreys, which look like collections of leaves caught in the crook of branches, can be seen everywhere in the park if you know what you are looking for. 

02_eastern_chipmunk_tamias_striatus The smallest species present is the Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus). I think this is the first time I’ve seen chipmunks in the wild, and getting a photograph proved particularly difficult as I’m using the camera in my phone which has no appreciable zoom. Although arboreal rodents of the family scuridae like the squirrels, chipmunks actually live in underground burrows – the rocky sides of Mont-Royal seem to be an ideal habitat for them.

03_american_red_squirrel_pine_squirrel_t The third species is the American Red Squirrel, or Pine Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). This is a different red squirrel species to the one I am used to in the UK, but both red squirrel species share the common trait of being both smaller and more reticent than their grey cousins. I was very pleased to get the photo of this one, as it is not easy to photograph red squirrels without a telephoto lens. I have never before encountered red and grey squirrels in the same place (although it is possible in parts of Scotland) as the grey squirrels in the UK carry an infection which is fatal to the native red squirrels which are consequently endangered.

04_pleased_to_meet_youcropped The behaviour of the grey squirrels in the park varies according to where you encounter them. At the outside edge, or at the summit around the “Chalet” (a large and beautifully constructed hall), the greys are extremely accustomed to humans, and practically expect to be fed. When I sat on a wall on the summit, a nearby grey immediately came and sat with me to see if I had anything tasty to offer. The squirrel pictured was particularly friendly, and had no problem climbing up me to get food. 05_curiouscropped He seemed to be having a tougher time of life near the summit than the other squirrels – the grey squirrel pictured at the start of this article had an overlapping home range, and looked to be in considerably better health. I suspect he may have had low status in the squirrel society, and his amiability was driven by hunger – he was probably getting a smaller share of the handouts on account to being smaller, and therefore more easily chased away by other greys (in fact, the aforementioned squirrel tried to chase this little guy away from me, but I don’t reward this behaviour in semi-domesticated squirrels so it won him no advantage). 

06_cautious In the centre of the park, where the forest is densest, the greys behave much like wild squirrels, foraging for their own food among the leaf litter, as well as climbing along branches to pull seeds from the trees. They do not expect humans to be a source of food, and are therefore somewhat confused when one starts throwing nuts. 07_ill_have_that_thanksI do not know if this is apparent to someone who has not spent some time watching squirrels, but the squirrel pictured has a look of cautious interest on his face – he wants to know what’s going on, but he’s not too keen to trust me. As I was holding my hand out to win his trust, I was treated to an unexpected visitation: a small bird of the tit family flitted down and landed on my hand, picked a choice nut and flew off . There was a small flock of these birds, probably black-capped chickadees (Parus atricapillus), who took turns to land on my hand, pick something good, and then leave. Occasionally, they would find something that didn’t appeal, and throw it off my hand before picking something else. I have a short video of this behaviour, which apparently is not uncommon for this bird species. This short movie is unfortunately sideways, but nevermind.

08_up_and_down On my second trip to the park, I attempted to befriend this pair of female squirrels on the edge of the park – probably sisters born this year. However, a fat and obnoxious male, who may or may not have been related, kept arriving and chasing them off. I did not feed him, which left him feeling quite frustrated, and he eventually retreated up a tree to sulk. The two sisters came back down and reconnected with me, but were still too shy to eat from my hand. 

09_on_the_bench_2When I sat on a nearby bench, another grey immediately came and sat upon the bench with me. He had clearly been fed by someone from a bench before, as he seemed to know this game all too well. In fact, he was more than happy to clamber all over me to pick the nut of his choice from my hand, as this short video shows.

10_from_the_handcropped However, even this friendly little grey had nothing on the group of four squirrels (almost certainly siblings) I met near the summit that day. Grey squirrels are often suspicious of people on their own, but when they gather in groups they become more bold. 11_im_ready_for_my_close_upPartly this is probably the reassurance of a second opinion: if I judge you as not a threat, I could be wrong, but if we all judge you as not a threat, we can be more confident. Additionally, grey squirrels are great game players within their peer group, and this quartet positively excelled themselves competing to be more bold. This picture – which is not zoomed in any way – shows how close they were willing to let me come. 

12_from_the_tree A first for me, I was able to get one of this group to feed from my hand while hanging from a tree, which is extremely unusual behaviour for any squirrel. 13_hanging_on_slightly_blurred I also managed to persuade one of them to climb me as a tree, as this slightly blurry picture depicts – the squirrel in question is literally hanging from my arm. 14_the_restaurant_on_my_knee_slightly_blHaving them stop on my knee to feed was incredibly easy – normally it would take more than an hour of trust building with an urban squirrel to elicit this result.

The sun was setting, alas, so I had to bid them farewell and make my descent, heading off to Chu Chai, an excellent vegetarian Thai restaurant recommended to me by one of my readers for my first decent meal since I arrived in Montreal. If there's one thing my time in the park has taught me it's that I need to get a digital camera with a decent telephoto function. If anyone can recommend one, I'd welcome some advice.

I have been to many parks, and met many squirrels, but the squirrels of Parc du Mont-Royal have been exceptionally charming. If time allows, I hope to visit one more time before I leave the city.


Next week, I'm in Canada for the third Montreal International Game Summit where I'll be giving a talk on the subject of Play Styles and Player Needs. I have no idea whether blogging will be disrupted; I guess as long as there's a wireless network at the hotel it'll be business as usual. It'll be my first time above the 48th parallel on the North American continent... Let me know if you're at the summit, and if anyone knows Montreal and can recommend a good place to visit, vegetarian restaurant, or place to meet squirrels do let me know.

I'd like to find some Eastern grey squirrels while I'm there, because they are known to have two seperate colour phases, grey and black, and apparently black is the dominant colour in Ontario and Quebec; I've not yet seen a black squirrel. It's the same species as the greys in the UK (Sciurus carolinensis) but the populations have some different genes for fur colour. And following my recent encounter with an albino squirrel in London, I've learned they have an entire breeding population of white squirrels in Exeter, Ontario, but that's five hundred miles away from where I'm going, alas.

Lastly, as you can see, I finished the last of the Temperament pieces today. I'll start talking about how these relate to play over the next few months, laying stronger foundations for the DGD2 research which is still lurking somewhere in the future, but I might also talk about how these temperament issues relate to my own life in some more personal pieces... To be honest, I have no idea what is going to happen next on the blog, so I'm going to try and relax and see what flies out of my fingers.

Have a great weekend!

Albino Squirrel

AlbinosquirrelIn all my years of squirrel-watching, I have never before seen a white squirrel. I spotted this one in South Croydon Recreation Ground; I was on my way to catch a train, so alas I didn't have time to get a better photo. He was chasing a grey around the park when I saw him, apparently fitting in with his social group without a problem. (I'm assuming 'he', as a male squirrel will chase another male in competition or a female for mating, but females are generally pursued rather than pursuer).

Albinism affects mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, suggesting it could date back as far as the Silurian, some 450 million years ago. It is the result of a recessive gene, and has a low rate of incidence. Albino animals can be quite healthy, although the disruption of natural camouflage can be a severe disadvantage in the wild. This urban albino squirrel will probably have no particular problems in his life, as predatory birds are rarely a problem for squirrels who live in large cities, and the most common cause of death is road accidents. I hope I will have a chance to see him again next time I'm in London.

In a Hollow

Squirrels_in_hole_small_3If ever there was proof that I need to invest in a digital camera with a decent telephoto lens, it's this photo. The idea of squirrels curled up within a hole in a tree is enduring, and has been popularised by some animated cartoons. But one rarely actually sees it. There were at least four young squirrels sharing this fortuitously discovered drey with their mother (pictured here above one of the babies); it was situated about four metres up the tree. The litter was probably born over the winter, and were just emerging to view the outside world as spring began. The tree in question was in the middle of a street in Knoxville - actually a rather safe place for squirrels, as few predators cross the street except when necessary.