It’s January, which means we at Nature’s Academy are celebrating National Squirrel Day on January 21st! Florida is home to three native species of squirrels. They’re what’s known as “generalists” and can survive almost anywhere as long as there’s enough food to go around. The most common Florida species, the eastern gray squirrel, is found in just about every green space you can think of!
Squirrels are omnivores that can be found eating berries, nuts, bark, and even small insects. They collect food as often as they can and bury it in the ground until they get hungry in a process known as “caching.” Squirrels can remember THOUSANDS of these cache spots. Any forgotten nuts or seeds often turn into trees. Next time you see a beautiful oak tree growing in a grassy field, you may need to thank a squirrel!
The less-common fox squirrel is named for the orange to yellow ventral (belly-side) fur color. It’s North America’s largest tree squirrel, reaching a weight of up to three pounds. Florida is also home to a species of flying squirrel. The southern flying squirrel leaps from high trees and spreads the flaps of skin that extend from their wrists to their ankles called “patagium.” The patagium allows the squirrel to glide from tree to tree while avoiding any predators on the ground. Seeing these nocturnal mammals is a rare sight!
Florida also hosts a unique population of squirrel that look quite a bit different from their more popular counterparts. Groups of gray squirrels across their eastern range have developed white fur. These leusistic animals lack all types of pigment, unlike albino animals that lack everything but red. White eastern squirrels are found in the Keys, the Panhandle, up through Missouri, and as far north as Canada. This genetic mutation takes away the ability to camouflage in a woodsy brown environment. However, these squirrels are still around, leading us to believe that evading predators is a white squirrel specialty.
All three species of native Florida squirrels are tree-dwellers, nesting and resting high up in the branches. You also may notice them retreating to the trees if threatened by predators, descending to forage when the coast is clear. To learn more about squirrels and their role in native habitats, visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s page about squirrels!