Smoky Mountain Wildlife

Deer_smallIt's not hard to find deer in Tennesee - they can often be seen by the side of the road, although seldom in numbers such as these. The deer up in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park are used to cars driving past, and remain comfortably unfazed. Although no means as tame as the deer at Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan (for instance), who push boldly against visitors like beggars politely demanding to be fed, they nonetheless have no fear of humans here.

Salamander_smallHarder to spot, however, are tiny salamanders, like this one here. Although she looks a tad confused, I assure you this was a temporary stumble, and she was perfectly motive, scurrying across my hands, presumably looking for somewhere damper to hide. This was the first time I'd seen a salamander - we don't have them in the UK - although I have considerable prior experience with newts, which are close relatives. Salamanders, however, can be terrestrial rather than aquatic or riparian - as in the case of this fellow, who was busy hunting beneath the forest canopy for insects.

RingneckedNot much farther up the trail, I found the salamander's natural predator - in this case, a juvenile ring-necked snake. Perhaps only two inches long, she rapidly scurried under a rock to hide. Non-venemous, I could have picked her up, but I didn't want to risk stressing her unduly. In retrospect, I could probably have handled her without too much difficulty. I have some experience with snakes, although in the UK we have no venomous species which makes dealing with them somewhat safer.

It's a good sign when one goes hiking for just a few hours and finds both predator and prey from one segment of the food web. Indeed, I probably saw four levels of the same chain, as the salamander could have eaten any of a dozen different insect species, and I suspect that more than one of the birds I saw that day would have happily eaten the snake. Although none of these species are especially rare, it was still a source of great satisfaction for me to have a chance to encounter them in their natural habitats.

Smoky Mountain Squirrel

Squirrel_on_tree_smokiessmallThis is a familiar fellow - the grey squirrel, or sciurus carolinensis. However, this particular sciurid was not spotted in a park in Manchester or any other city, but high up in the mountains on the Tennessee-Carolina border, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This, then, is a wild squirrel, and not an urban adapted rodent of the kind we are more familiar.

I suspect, however, this little guy is quite familiar with humans since I spotted him within fifty metres of a car park on the Cades Cove loop - and tellingly, he (best guess at gender)  did not vanish when we met. Upon our mutual encounter he took the usual defensive step of climbing onto a tree and juxtiposing the trunk of the tree between him and me. This is a basic squirrel defence mechanism, easily observed  in greys. It is usually hard to spot if you are the interloper, as the squirrel disappears in the blind spot on the far side of the tree (and from there, can rapidly be tens of metres away in seconds, as they are some of nature's most agile beasts).

However, I remained quiet and still, and moved gently around the tree until I was able to get the photo seen here. He was breathing fast - fight or flight instinct doubtless leaving him uncertain of what to do. Facing down the tree, he was probably considering crossing the ground to the next trunk, had I proved a potential threat. Not moving does wonders to relax a squirrel in this situation, as like many small animals they key into movement as danger (although during mating season they rush after each other for the thrill of the chase). We remained locked in this position for perhaps a minute, before he decided that I wasn't a threat.

Squirrel1_small_1He retreated up the tree to the nearest crook in the branches, as shown in this picture, and continued to watch me, now confident that I wasn't a threat. Perhaps he was wondering if I had any food - since the most likely reason for a squirrel to hang around a noisy car parking area is to take advantage of any food left by picnicking human visitors. (Since he was a wild squirrel, I didn't feed him).

It was an interesting encounter - much closer than is usually possible with a wild squirrel, suggesting once again that he was somewhat accustomed to humans, although he had certainly not lost his caution in their presence. From his higher vantage point, he had no fear of me, but retained a certain charming curiosity.

Although not the only squirrel I saw this day, this was the most intimate of my encounters.

Urban Squirrels

Squirrelclose_upOne of my favourite ways to spend an idle day is to take a trip over to one of the larger parks or reserves in my local area and to spend some time with the grey squirrels. British parks support a larger population of squirrels than a similar area in the countryside because of the number of visitors who bring nuts to feed them. This keeps them well supplied during the warmer months, but during the winter when park visitors are less common, they have to rely on buried supplies - so during autumn (when these photos were taken), stockpiling is the chief activity. (Park squirrels share the stockpiled supplies; their home ranges inevitably overlap, and sense of smell, and not memory, appears to be the chief way of locating buried nuts).

Although in general you should not feed wild animals, as they can become dependent upon handouts and lose the ability to fend for themselves, there is no harm in feeding urban squirrels as they are already somewhat reliant on humans for their food, being partly domesticated. In fact, when food is scarce, urban grey squirrels are forced to raid people's trash, so it is better for everyone if park squirrels are kept comfortably fed. (Similarly, many bird species are dependent on handouts during winter - especially in the UK - and there is no harm in leaving out food for them).

The grey squirrel is not a native species to the United Kingdom, but was introduced from the United States in the nineteenth century. Although their presence has hurt the native red squirrels, this is largely because of a contagion for which the red squirrels had no resistance. Schemes in Scotland are now introducing resistance to the red squirrels, which is helping redress the balance, although fragmentation of forests is also having a negative effect on red squirrel population. Whilst red squirrels are shy and require patience and skill to locate, grey squirrels are bold and adventurous. I grew up on the Isle of Wight, which is one of the remaining habitats for red squirrels in the UK, so have been privileged to experience both species.

Squirrelwho_are_youcroppedGrey squirrels in an urban environment do not tend to see people as a threat, but in common with many small mammals and birds retreat at speed from fast moving objects - if you're six inches tall, a fast moving object is likely to be a threat, and you can't afford to take the chance. As a result, befriending grey squirrels in a park is largely a case of being willing to sit still. You do not have to be motionless, but no sudden moves helps them come to trust you. Also, sitting on the ground helps - it reduces your height, which makes you seem less like a dangerous giant. Grey squirrels have a relentless curiosity, which means they will always come and investigate you, given time - you just have to convince them that you're a friend - or at the very least, something non-threatening which is giving out food.

Because of their tendency to retreat from anything moving fast, grey squirrels play dominance games based upon chasing each other. If a squirrel feels a rival has moved in on their territory (and some will see you as a part of their territory, while you are there), they will rush towards them - causing the interloper to scurry off. Chases often ensure, as the two squirrels rush at breakneck speed towards each other, often taking labyrinthine paths up and across trees. In general, they never actually touch or harm each other. The chase is what it's all about; there's no need for direct violence (although some scuffles do break out from time to time). Not all squirrels feel the need to exert dominance in this way; many are content to share space with their relatives and neighbours.

We_three_squirrelsSquirrels don't like being touched, but will tolerate the odd bit of contact once they trust you. Conversely, they have no qualms at all about climbing on you - provided they trust you a great deal, and ideally when they are emboldened by being in large numbers. A lone squirrel isn't always certain what is safe, but like many animals they feel much more comfortable when there are more of their kind around them. This can even lead to dominance games in the form of dares - I can climb this human, and you don't have the nuts to do it! The day my wife took these photos, the squirrels were much too busy burying supplies for the winter, and hence I couldn't keep their attention for very long.

I'll leave you with this Quicktime movie of three squirrels taking nuts from my hand. If like me you are fond of squirrels, I encourage you to make the effort to take some nuts to your local parks during the winter - not only will they appreciate the meal during the leaner months, but they will be much more willing to relate to you, as hunger emboldens the most timid of beasts. Happy feeding!

Dog Adopts Squirrel

Squirreldog_1Dog adopts squirrel - cute photo results. My wife found this story for me, knowing that it would be of interest to me both for philosophical reasons, and because of my relentless love of squirrels. The essence of the story (originally reported in The Seattle Times) is that at an animal shelter in Seattle a pregnant dog named Giselle pulled a cage containing a squirrel named Finnegan closer to her - on two seperate occasions. Debby Cantlon, who runs the shelter, was nervous about letting the squirrel out, but eventually allowed the two animals to bond. The result? Finnegan has now been adopted as part of the litter. You can see him curled up and asleep in a pile of puppies in the picture.

Cantlon, incidentally, has cancer, and is one of many people who finds caring for and living with animals has theraputic value. I believe this sort of news deserves to be shared, especially since there is a tendency for us to let the news services report everything that is going wrong in the world - and in our new global village this acts as a lens, making the world appear a far worse place that it actually is. My wife suggested we could use a counterpoint to this side of the news -  a "Happy news channel" - and we subsequently found that there is just such a service, at

Squirrelpuppies_1This story has personal relevance for me, as I always have a good relationship with the squirrels that live around me, and this has been a very important part of my life since childhood. I grew up in a menagerie with literally dozens of different animal species including dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, tarantulas, ducks, tortoises, terrapins, and even, on one occasion, a kestrel. I miss having a dog the most, and my wife and I plan to adopt a dog when we next move house - but then the problem presents itself as to how to continue my relationship with squirrels after we have a dog. After all, the usual relationship between dog and squirrel is less than amicable.

The story suggests to me that it may be possible to have a dog and still relate to squirrels - although obviously there are a lot of questions. Can I train the dog to be tolerant of squirrels without the aid of maternal instincts, for instance.  Dogs are fully social animals, so whatever we lay down as the rules of the pack, the dog will presumably learn to accept. I could use more information from people with stories of canine-sciurine interactions, really.

The philosophical aspect of this story is that this is another example of an animal caring for another animal with no genetic advantage. The popular but disputed scientific field of sociobiology (which is less disputed than other fringe sciences because it is doggedly materialistic and therefore more compatible with the dominant paradigm) claims that animals care for close relatives because of "kin selection" - there is a sufficient crossover of genes with your relatives that you gain genetic benefits from doing so.

But the incidence of inter-species adoption is wider than most people would like to believe, as this doggedly materialistic account reports. Most mothers have no difficulty understanding why this would be so, but most scientists are desperate for explanations in purely Darwinian terms (including non-explanations such as "parental blunders" or "parenting practice"), which suggests to me that they have gone beyond the dispassionate agnosticism required for objective science and into adopting an expressly Darwinian belief system. I have no problem with this, because we are all subject to biases from our belief systems - but people should admit to such biases, in the same way that a Creationist should not attempt to hide their beliefs when they are reporting from their own unique perspectives.

Consider the following quotes:

“Many citrus tress that are natives of arid regions have sour fruit to discourage animals from eating it. The flesh of a lemon is there for three main reasons: to add weight so it will roll a long way after it falls from the tree, to dissuade foraging animals from eating the seeds before they can develop, and to supply water and nutrients as the flesh rots around the germinating seeds. The main aim of any seed is to propagate the species, not to feed the local animals.”
    - Letter to New Scientist, Joanna Burgess April 1999 AD

“An ovate or oblong form is consequently the very best that could be adopted; and, moreover, the points with which it is covered and adorned, are evidently designed to protect the shell from external injury… At the same time a beautiful variety of tints evince that minute attention to the finishing and decorating of his works which the Deity so continually displays.”
    - The Conchologists Companion, Mary Roberts 1834 AD

In both cases, the writer has already decided what the truth of the matter is - only the nature of the belief system they have chosen is different.

I believe "kin selection" and other sociobiological theories are misguided, although people are free to believe what they wish, of course. I side with Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin in believing that it is monstrously naive to presume that because we can concieve of possible reasons why a particular physical or behavioural trait might be a selective advantage, it doesn't follow that all physical and behavioural traits must originate in selection. In biology and in life, some elements are simply random artefacts - and we cannot easily know which is which.

LionessoryxThat said, I do believe that the capacity for animals to adopt outside of their species has something to tell us. The hearbreaking tale of the lioness who adopted a baby oryx and cared for her for two weeks before they strayed into the territory of another lion who took the oryx as easy prey shows just how powerful the instinct to care can be in all animals of sufficient complexity to be able to play (mammals, birds - possibly some fish, too). When life faces so much threat from disasters of all kinds, from starvation to earthquake and flood, it is simply a good strategy for life to be willing to co-operate. This is my belief, and I do not present it as science.

When I appear to attack materialism, it should be undestood that what I am really against is one belief system claiming its superiority over others - ontological fascism, if you will. The sign of a civilised society is its tolerance for differing beliefs, and if we will not accept one religious belief system claiming divine right, we assuredly should not accept it from any scientific belief system.

Animals are "vehicles" used by their genes for making more copies of those genes? Believe that if you wish. But still, dog adopts squirrel. That's real life.