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Eastern gray squirrel
The eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), also known as the grey squirrel depending on region, is a tree squirrel in the genus Sciurus. It is native to eastern North America, where it is the most prodigious and ecologically essential natural forest regenerator. Widely introduced to certain places around the world, the eastern gray squirrel in Europe, in particular, is regarded as an invasive species.
Description & appearance
The eastern gray squirrel has predominantly gray fur, but it can have a brownish color. It has a usual white underside as compared to the typical brownish-orange underside of the fox squirrel. It has a large bushy tail. Particularly in urban situations where the risk of predation is reduced, both white – and black-colored individuals are quite often found. The melanistic form, which is almost entirely black, is predominant in certain populations and in certain geographic areas, such as in large parts of southeastern Canada. Melanistic squirrels appear to exhibit a higher cold tolerance than the common gray morph; when exposed to -10 °C, black squirrels showed an 18% reduction in heat loss, a 20% reduction in basal metabolic rate, and an 11% increase to non-shivering thermogenesis capacity when compared to the common gray morph. The black coloration is caused by an incomplete dominant mutation of MC1R, where E+/E+ is a wild type squirrel, E+/EB is brown-black, and EB/EB is black.
The head and body length is from 23 to 30 cm (9.1 to 11.8 in), the tail from 19 to 25 cm (7.5 to 9.8 in), and the adult weight varies between 400 and 600 g (14 and 21 oz). They do not display sexual dimorphism, meaning there is no gender difference in size or coloration.
The tracks of an eastern gray squirrel are difficult to distinguish from the related fox squirrel and Abert's squirrel, though the latter's range is almost entirely different from the gray's. Like all squirrels, the eastern gray shows four toes on the front feet and five on the hind feet. The hind foot-pad is often not visible in the track. When bounding or moving at speed, the front foot tracks will be behind the hind foot tracks. The bounding stride can be two to three feet long.
The dental formula of the eastern gray squirrel is 1023/1013 (Upper teeth/Lower Teeth).
188.8.131.52.0.1.3 × 2 = 22 total teeth.
Incisors exhibit indeterminate growth, meaning they grow consistently throughout life, and their cheek teeth exhibit brachydont (low-crowned teeth) and bunodont (having tubercles on crowns) structures.
Distribution & habitat
Sciurus carolinensis is native to the eastern and midwestern United States, and to the southerly portions of the central provinces of Canada. The native range of the eastern gray squirrel overlaps with that of the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), with which it is sometimes confused, although the core of the fox squirrel's range is slightly more to the west. The eastern gray squirrel is found from New Brunswick, through southwestern Quebec and throughout southern Ontario plus in southern Manitoba, south to East Texas and Florida. Breeding eastern gray squirrels are found in Nova Scotia, but whether this population was introduced or came from natural range expansion is not known. It has also been introduced into Ireland, Britain, Italy, South Africa, and Australia (where it was extirpated by 1973). Eastern gray squirrels in Europe are a concern because they have displaced some of the native squirrels there. In 1966, this squirrel was also introduced to Vancouver Island in Western Canada in the area of Metchosin, and has spread widely from there. They are considered highly invasive and a threat to both the local ecosystem and the native red squirrel.
A prolific and adaptable species, the eastern gray squirrel has also been introduced to, and thrives in, several regions of the western United States. The gray squirrel is an invasive species in Britain; it has spread across the country and has largely displaced the native red squirrel, S. vulgaris. In Ireland, the red squirrel has been displaced in several eastern counties, though it still remains common in the south and west of the country. That such a displacement might happen in Italy is of concern, as gray squirrels might spread to other parts of mainland Europe.
In the wild, eastern gray squirrels can be found inhabiting large areas of mature, dense woodland ecosystems, generally covering 100 acres (40 hectares) of land. These forests usually contain large mast-producing trees such as oaks and hickories, providing ample food sources. Oak-hickory hardwood forests are generally preferred over coniferous forests due to the greater abundance of mast forage. This is why they are found only in parts of eastern Canada which do not contain boreal forest (i.e. they are found in some parts of New Brunswick, in southwestern Quebec, throughout southern Ontario and in southern Manitoba).
Eastern gray squirrels generally prefer constructing their dens upon large tree branches and within the hollow trunks of trees. They also have been known to take shelter within abandoned bird nests. The dens are usually lined with moss plants, thistledown, dried grass, and feathers. These perhaps provide and assist in the insulation of the den, used to reduce heat loss. A cover to the den is usually built afterwards.
Close to human settlements, eastern gray squirrels are found in parks and back yards of houses within urban environments and in the farmlands of rural environments.
Eastern gray squirrels eat a range of foods, such as tree bark, tree buds, berries, many types of seeds and acorns, walnuts, and other nuts, like hazelnuts (see picture) and some types of fungi found in the forests, including fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria). They can cause damage to trees by tearing the bark and eating the soft cambial tissue underneath. In Europe, sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus L.) and beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) suffer the greatest damage. The squirrels also raid gardens for tomatoes, corn, strawberries, and other garden crops. Sometimes they eat the tomato seeds and discard the rest. On occasion, eastern gray squirrels also prey upon insects, frogs, small rodents including other squirrels, and small birds, their eggs, and young. They also gnaw on bones, antlers, and turtle shells – likely as a source of minerals scarce in their normal diet.
Eastern gray squirrels have a high enough tolerance for humans to inhabit residential neighborhoods and raid bird feeders for millet, corn, and sunflower seeds. Some people who feed and watch birds for entertainment also intentionally feed seeds and nuts to the squirrels for the same reason. However, in the UK eastern gray squirrels can take a significant proportion of supplementary food from feeders, preventing access and reducing use by wild birds. Attraction to supplementary feeders can increase local bird nest predation, as eastern gray squirrels are more likely to forage near feeders, resulting in increased likelihood of finding nests, eggs and nestlings of small passerines.
Eastern gray squirrels can breed twice a year, but younger and less experienced mothers normally have a single litter per year in the spring. Depending on forage availability, older and more experienced females may breed again in summer. In a year of abundant food, 36% of females bear two litters, but none will do so in a year of poor food. Their breeding seasons are December to February and May to June, though this is slightly delayed in more northern latitudes. The first litter is born in February or March, the second in June or July, though, again, bearing may be advanced or delayed by a few weeks depending on climate, temperature, and forage availability. In any given breeding season, an average of 61 – 66% of females bear young. If a female fails to conceive or loses her young to unusually cold weather or predation, she re-enters estrus and has a later litter. Five days before a female enters estrus, she may attract up to 34 males from up to 500 meters away. Eastern gray squirrels exhibit a form of polygyny, in which the competing males will form a hierarchy of dominance, and the female will mate with multiple males depending on the hierarchy established.
Normally, one to four young are born in each litter, but the largest possible litter size is eight. The gestation period is about 44 days. The young are weaned around 10 weeks, though some may wean up to six weeks later in the wild. They begin to leave the nest after 12 weeks, with autumn born young often wintering with their mother. Only one in four squirrel kits survives to one year of age, with mortality around 55% for the following year. Mortality rates then decrease to around 30% for following years until they increase sharply at eight years of age.
Rarely, eastern gray females can enter estrus as early as five and a half months old, but females are not normally fertile until at least one year of age. Their mean age of first estrus is 1.25 years.The presence of a fertile male will induce ovulation in a female going through estrus. Male eastern grays are sexually mature between one and two years of age. Reproductive longevity for females appears to be over 8 years, with 12.5 years documented in North Carolina. These squirrels can live to be 20 years old in captivity, but in the wild live much shorter lives due to predation and the challenges of their habitat. At birth, their life expectancy is 1–2 years, an adult typically can live to be six, with exceptional individuals making it to 12 years.
Newborn gray squirrels weigh 13–18 grams and are entirely hairless and pink, although vibrissae are present at birth. 7–10 days postpartum, the skin begins to darken, just before the juvenile pelage grows in. Lower incisors erupt 19–21 days postpartum, while upper incisors erupt after 4 weeks. Cheek teeth erupt during week 6. Eyes open after 21–42 days, and ears open 3–4 weeks postpartum. Weaning is initiated around 7 weeks postpartum, and is usually finished by week 10, followed by the loss of the juvenile pelage. Full adult body mass is achieved by 8–9 months after birth.
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