Mystery Solved: Scientists Have Figured Out Why Some Squirrels Are Black

Rena-Marie/iStock via Getty Images
Rena-Marie/iStock via Getty Images

It can be something of a surprise to see an animal sporting a fresh coat of paint. Blue lobsters occasionally surface after being caught in traps. A pink dolphin was spotted in Louisiana in 2007 (and several times since). In the Chinese province of Shaanxi, a cute brown and white panda greets zoo visitors.

Another anomalous animal has joined their ranks. Black squirrels have been spotted in both the United States and the UK, and now scientists believe they know why.

Like many animals with unusual color schemes, black squirrels are the result of a genetic detour. Researchers at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge University, and the Virginia Museum of Natural History collaborated on a project that tested squirrel DNA. Their findings, which were published in BMC Evolutionary Biology, demonstrated that the black squirrel is the product of interspecies breeding between the common gray squirrel and the fox squirrel. The black squirrel is actually a gray squirrel with a faulty pigment gene carried over from the fox squirrel that turns their fur a darker shade. (Some fox squirrels, which are usually reddish-brown, are also black.)

A black squirrel is pictured
sanches12/iStock via Getty Images

Scientists theorize a black fox squirrel may have joined in on a mating chase involving gray squirrels and got busy with a female. The black fur may offer benefits in colder regions, with squirrels able to absorb and retain more heat, giving them a slight evolutionary edge.

In North America, black squirrels are uncommon, with one estimate putting them at a rate of one in every 10,000 squirrels. In 1961, students at Kent State University in Ohio released 10 black squirrels that had been captured by Canadian wildlife authorities. The squirrels now populate the campus and have become the school’s unofficial mascot. Their coloring might help them hide from predators, which might come in handy at Kent State: The campus is also home to hawks.

[h/t The Guardian]

Massive Swarms of Migrating Dragonflies Are So Large They’re Popping Up on Weather Radar

emprised/iStock via Getty Images
emprised/iStock via Getty Images

What do Virginia, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio all have in common? Epic swarms of dragonflies, among other things.

WSLS-TV reports that this week, weather radar registered what might first appear to be late summer rain showers. Instead, the green blotches turned out to be swarms of dragonflies—possibly green darners, a type of dragonfly that migrates south during the fall.

Norman Johnson, a professor of entomology at The Ohio State University, told CNN that although these swarms happen occasionally, they’re definitely not a regular occurrence. He thinks the dragonflies, which usually prefer to travel alone, may form packs based on certain weather conditions. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is: Johnson said that entomologists haven’t worked out all the details when it comes to dragonfly migration. They do know that the airborne insects cover an average of eight miles per day, while some overachievers can fly as far as 86.

Based on the radar footage shared by the National Weather Service’s Cleveland Office, the dragonfly clouds seem almost menacing. But, while swarms of any insect species aren’t exactly delightful, these creatures are both harmless and surprisingly beautiful, at least up close. Anna Barnett, a resident of Jeromesville, Ohio, even told CNN that witnessing the natural phenomenon was “amazing!”

Amazing as it may be to see, it’s hard to hear news about unpredictable animal behavior without wondering if it’s related in some way to Earth’s rising temperatures. After all, climate change has already affected wasps in Alabama, polar bears in Russia, and no doubt countless other animal species around the world.

[h/t WSLW-TV]

6 Fall Festivals Around the World That Celebrate Animals

Prakash Mathema, AFP/Getty Images
Prakash Mathema, AFP/Getty Images

Where would humans be without animals? Chickens and cows give us eggs and milk, providing nourishment (and also cake). Horses, donkeys, and water buffalo are as hardworking as any person, and thanks to our pets, we always have a source of love and entertainment to come home to. It's time we celebrate animals more often, and to get you started, here are six fall festivals around the world that do just that.

1. Kukur Tihar

Dog in Nepal during a fall festival
Tuayai/iStock via Getty Images

A big part of Tihar, a five-day Hindu festival held in late autumn in Nepal, is giving thanks to other species. Crows, believed to be the messengers of death, are worshipped on the first day. Cows are worshipped on the third, and often oxen on the fourth. The second day, though, is all about man's best friend. Dogs are described favorably in Hindu religious texts, and it’s believed that they can warn people of impending danger and even death. In a ceremony called Kukur Tihar, people place flower garlands around the necks of both pet dogs and stray dogs to show their respect. A red dot (tika) is placed on their foreheads in an act of worship, and naturally, the dogs are spoiled with lots and lots of treats.

2. Transhumance Festival

Hundreds of sheep in the street
Pierre Philippe Marcou, AFP/Getty Images

In Spanish, this festival in Madrid is called Fiesta de la Trashumancia. The word transhumance refers to the act of moving herds of livestock to different grazing grounds depending on the season. In practice, it's quite the spectacle. Thousands of sheep have been led through the streets of Madrid each autumn since the festival was formally established in 1994. Men and women in traditional garb lead the way, singing and dancing along the parade route in celebration of centuries-old shepherding traditions.

3. Monkey Buffet Festival

A monkey eating various kinds of fruit
Saeed Khan, AFP/Getty Images

Visitors to Thailand’s temples are advised not to feed the monkeys (they can get awfully handsy), but the locals of Lopburi make an exception on the last Sunday of November. On this day, towers of fruit and banquet tables containing several tons of food and even cans of Coca-Cola are set up in the ruins of a 13th-century temple. Once a sheet is removed to unveil the spread, it doesn’t take long for Lopburi’s thousands of macaques to arrive. Thailand's reverence for monkeys dates back some 2000 years to legends surrounding the monkey king Hanuman and his heroic feats. Nowadays, the creatures are considered a sign of good luck in the country.

4. Woolly Worm Festival

The woolly worm is to Banner Elk, North Carolina, what the groundhog is to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. According to local folklore, the color of this fuzzy caterpillar can be analyzed in autumn to predict how severe the forthcoming winter will be. The 13 segments on its body are thought to correspond to the 13 weeks of winter—more black means colder weather and snow, while more brown means the weather will be fair. To make this prognostication process more official, the Woolly Worm Festival was established on the third weekend of October in 1978. This year, it will be held October 20-21. A worm race is the main event, and the caterpillar that climbs the fastest up three feet of string gets the honor of helping to predict the winter (plus a $1000 cash prize for the worm’s coach). “Patsy Climb” and “Dale Wormhardt” were a couple of past competitors.

5. Pushkar Camel Fair

Decorated camels
Roberto Schmidt, AFP/Getty Images

The Indian state of Rajasthan is a vibrant place. It’s home to the Pink City, Blue City, and Yellow City, and it also hosts a colorful cultural event each November called the Pushkar Camel Fair. Celebrated on a full moon day of the Hindu lunar calendar, it’s one of the largest fairs of its kind in the world. The annual gathering is a chance for traders to show off their camels and livestock, while also celebrating local culture and traditions. Both the people and camels sport brilliant attire, participate in a variety of competitions, and dance to lively music. (Yes, there’s video evidence of a dancing camel, but the word dance is used loosely.)

6. Birds of Chile Festival

Held each fall in Viña del Mar along Chile's Pacific coast, the Festival de Aves de Chile celebrates the beauty and diversity of the country's birds. Festival-goers have the chance to see Chile’s national bird—the wide-winged Andean condor, which happens to be one of the largest flying birds in the world—as well as other feathered friends in their natural environment. A series of excursions and talks featuring bird experts are organized each year.

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