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SALT LAKE CITY — A Utahn filmed an American red squirrel scurrying around, but rather than the grayish-brown color that is typical for the species in Utah, the animal is a stark white, making it "extremely rare," according to Division of Wildlife Resources biologists.
The video was posted to YouTube by Nick Carnahan on Monday, Sept. 14. In the video description, Carnahan said he noticed the squirrel while he was eating lunch near Red Pine Lake in Little Cottonwood Canyon on the east side of Salt Lake Valley.
"I watched him for about an hour preparing for winter, digging holes and filling them with pine cones," he said in the video description. "I would say he got pretty comfortable around me. He started showing off big time."
Division of Wildlife Resources mammal conservation coordinator Kimberly Hersey said the animal appears to be an American red squirrel, also known as the pine or spruce squirrel, which is the most common squirrel genus in Utah. The animal typically lives in pine forest areas and eats the seeds from the cones, Hersey said.
So if most American red squirrels are grayish brown, why is this one white? DWR wildlife biologist George Oliver examined the video and said it's hard to be absolutely sure without personally seeing the squirrel, but said there are two possible explanations as to why the squirrel is white.
- Albinism: A congenital disorder that is characterized by an absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes.
- Leucism: A condition in which there is a partial loss of pigmentation resulting in white, pale or patchy coloration.
Oliver said the squirrel could be partially albino, a congenital disorder that is characterized by an absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes. Oliver said it isn't a complete albino because it has black instead of red eyes and it has a small patch of brown fur on its left side. He said another explanation for the unique coloring is that the squirrel could be leucistic, a condition in which there is a partial loss of pigmentation resulting in white, pale or patchy coloration. However, Oliver said leucistic animals are usually more of an off-white color, whereas this squirrel was a bright white.
Either way, he said the man was lucky to see the white squirrel in Utah because they are very rare.
"I'd say it's extremely rare," Oliver said. "I've never seen a squirrel like this in Utah nor have I heard even a mention of one. … This is the first one I've ever heard of and I've been working for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources for 20 years."
While white squirrels are rare in Utah, they are fairly prevalent in other parts of the world. In Olney, Illinois, there is a relatively large population of albino eastern fox squirrels. The unique squirrels have garnered media attention throughout the years.
Albinism is a recessive trait and it is estimated to only occur in 1 in 100,000 births in mammals, Hersey said.