They surround me as I stand in the middle of Queen’s Park—squirrels. Exactly 22 of these bushy-tailed critters are busily foraging on the snow. A few are grey, most are black, all have patches of fur missing along their necks and backs like a meaner breed of spots. I watch one spastically wrestling with an empty chip bag, untroubled by the droves of students walking around it.
Dena Maerine, a petite first-year student, is crossing through the park on her way to French class. “I’m from Halifax, and the squirrels out there are cute and grey and pettable,” she says. The chip bag squirrel tears open its foiled prey. “Here, they’re just bad-ass.”
Sciurus Carolinensis, otherwise known as the grey squirrel, has survived for three million years so far. If their ability to adapt to the last century’s concrete urbanism is any sign, they’ll probably do so for another three million years.
Their adaptation to our world is partly because we adore these cute, cuddly critters, of course. We slow down our cars for them. We plaster cartoon drawings of them on cereal boxes, peanut butter jars and Valentine’s Day cards. We smile at the sight of gaggles of school children offering them peanuts, hoping for friendship across the Darwinian divide of our species. It never comes, though—the nut is snatched, the wildness flashes, the bushy-tail is gone. Squirrels are man’s best acquaintances.
But at Queen’s Park, the squirrels are different. They seem a bit too well-acquainted with man. Apparently these daring pounds of fur and teeth have forgotten their fear of us. And with no natural predators in sight to remind them of being eaten, why shouldn’t they? In fact, these squirrels look and behave almost like a totally new species, as if pampering in urban paradise has altered them right down to their DNA.
Could it be that at Queen’s Park, an arborous island in downtown traffic, a new type of squirrel is evolving? Like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, could these wily rodents be alarmingly changing in response to their isolation and, more disturbingly, their daily contact with humans?
“When an animal comes up and begs, I’m afraid,” says zoologist Ellen Larsen, sitting in her office overlooking the concrete monolith of Robarts Library. “Oh my God, this is not natural—that’s what my reaction is.”
Larsen explains that Queen’s Park squirrels have been heavily habituated to human presence. They have become hooked on hot dog ends, Oreo cookie crumbs and the left-over smearings on chocolate bar wrappers. These are ravenous junkie squirrels. The slight orange stains on their teeth, though, are not due to their habit but a natural protective coating.
As for the colour difference among them, the black squirrels are actually of the same species as grey squirrels, says Larsen. The black is simply a polymorphism—a mutation that has become common in the gene pool. South of the Canadian border, a black squirrel is rare and people in most parts of the U.S. are astonished to see one.
“When I was a kid growing up in Massachusetts, people used to come from miles around to see a black squirrel,” says Learn. “There was both a wonder and a curious apprehension to them.”
She points out that along Philosopher’s Walk, close to Queen’s Park, there are many squirrels, too. Four horse chestnut trees harbour plenty of food there. During the morning she sees them scout with pigeons for breakfast. She used to see rats too, but suspects U of T has since used rat poison. The squirrels, however, seem to thrive.
Marc Engstrom doesn’t think these squirrels are a different species—they’re just, well, different. He’s the curator of mammals at the ROM and a professor of zoology. Some of the display cases he oversees include a few squirrels frozen with wild expressions. The way he looks at it, their scruffy appearance probably isn’t due to inbreeding but malnutrition, pollution, fighting and parasites. “Many of these mangy-looking animals are probably suffering from just that—mange,” he says.
Angstrom does think the flow of urban squirrel genes may slow down and whirlpool a bit in Queen’s Park. The smaller chance of a squirrel getting out alive across three lanes of traffic tends to insulate them more than in other parts of the city. But it just takes one new fornicating squirrel per generation to freshen up the gene pool enough to stave off inbreeding, he says.
And what about these animals cooperating together like the raptors in Jurassic Park? Have they evolved corralling methods to better surround and pester chip-munching students? Compared to other urban squirrels, Angstrom does see the Queen’s Park ones as more social due to a higher population density. But squirrels aren’t conniving, he says. “Squirrels are more or less solitary creatures. Really, I don’t think they have any sort of pack intelligence.”
That of course doesn’t explain what farmers in the U.S. have been reporting for the past two centuries—squirrels gathering in the thousands and migrating together. The reason for this rare behaviour is still not known.
Something is known about how they might do this. Squirrels communicate with each other using a rapid series of clicking sounds—kuk-kuk-kuk—which often sounds like chattering or a nutty laugh. Different frequency modulations of these clicks correlate to different behaviours or warnings, though no one has yet cracked if one of these sound patterns is an assembly call.
Squirrels also communicate by urinating around tree trunks, telling other squirrels to get lost. In fact, this can be found across the squirrel family’s domain of five continents, a mark of their adaptability.
Humans have played the largest role in this territorial expansion of the squirrel family, of course. Squirrels’ endearing cuteness has caused them to be exported all over the world. Currently only Australia—where they vigilantly ban them—and Antarctica—where presumably they would be white—are the only places left without some sort of squirrel.
White squirrels do exist, surprisingly. Popping up closer to home in small-town Exeter, ON, white squirrels can be found in the municipal parks. The town holds an annual White Squirrel Festival and officially calls itself “Home of the White Squirrel.” However, four towns in the U.S. do, too. Each town has accused the others of importing and breeding non-native squirrels for tourist dollars. Regardless, the squirrels are thriving in this symbiotic relationship.
In Queen’s Park, I watch a black squirrel scurry up the pants of a woman to nip at peanuts from her shoulder. People refer to her as the Squirrel Lady, but she calls herself “Mary, just Mary.” She is often seen around campus feeding squirrels and talking to them. Her sun-weathered face and dishevelled appearance make her look homeless, but after chatting with her it seems she’s just eccentric and lonely.
“Yes, I’ve given them different names. I can tell you who came from who and when,” she says. Mary tells me that the squirrel on her shoulder, Christie, came from Cara on the other side of the park. Christie has two other children from last year, though one of them she hasn’t seen around lately.
Mary says the Queen’s Park squirrels aren’t more intelligent than other urban squirrels. “They are much more intelligent than what I think people give them credit for,” she adds. “If people would take the time to get to know them, they’re actually quite similar to us.”
She gives me some peanuts and instructs me to stand beside her with my hand lowered to knee height. Christie cautiously approaches my boots then uncomfortably scrambles up my jeans to take her prize, quickly leaping off. Mary smiles. I do, too. She points out a park bench where a lot of squirrels will come and do the same thing. We walk over under a bright winter sun, myself realizing that with the proper rewards mammals can be well-trained.