Friday, June 1, 2007

Going Melanistic

When I lived on 38th Street, in the Burleith neighborhood of Georgetown, my quiet street butted up against an overgrown park. A squirrel scolded me on my way to my 8:45 class - the same one -- and I always knew which one it was. That's because this squirrel wasn't a mottled grey or a brassy red, it was jet black, with a white little tuft at the end of its question-mark tail.

I had never seen a black squirrel before I become a DC transplant. I spotted my first one as it scampered across Copley Lawn on a bright September afternoon. I thought I was losing my mind, but there it was, clear as day and dark as midnight, surveying the lawn with its marble eyes for scraps of dropped food. After that first one, I started to see black squirrels everywhere. I was fascinated. I started asking other students where they came from.

Theories abounded. Someone said that they were just a stage in the annual cycle of the regular grey squirrel, but they seemed to black all year round. Jandro, a self-assured New Jersey boy, declared that they were the result of a genetic experiment at Princeton, and that the released animals had been steadily multiplying and spreading southward. Someone else said they were Russian squirrels that carried transponders and miniature recording devices to send intelligence from DC to the Kremlin. The squirrels did somehow carry an aura of conspiracy. To discover a mammal that no one had ever had ever told me existed! Besides, the black squirrels were inarguably more aggressive than their shabbier grey cousins. I felt I was watching the forward troops of an invading rodent army of roguish black squirrel knights.

I've finally done my homework, and most sources agree that the black squirrels are natives of Ontario. Their ancestors were humble grey squirrels, and their unusual coloring is referred to be scientists as a "melanistic divergence." In 1902, Ontario decided to give them as a gift to the National Zoo here in DC. Some escaped, and they've been fulfilling the first commandment (be fruitful and multiply) with joyful abandon ever since. Perhap they are Canadian spies, not Russian.

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