The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News November 12, 2004

Explaining the discreet charm of Oberlin’s albino squirrels

One thing Olney, Ill., Marionville, Mo., Kenton, Tenn., Brevard, N.C., Exeter, Ontario, Canada and Oberlin all have in common is that they are home to a creature some regard as a miracle of nature. In Oberlin, however, these creatures seem to be less appreciated than in the other towns.

“They remind me that even if you look like a freak next to your peers, you can still function in a productive manner, as if nothing were different about you at all,” said sophomore Ryan Batijaka. “Plus, they’re freaks, and that is awesome.”

While the other five towns from the above-mentioned list take great pride in this creature, they argue over the origin of the puffy animal, their mascot. Exeter even has a festival dedicated to it, as well as a theme song. Kenton claims that this particular type of animal has lived there for the longest period of time since it was dropped off by a Gypsy caravan in the 19th century. What does Oberlin say?

“I’ve seen three of them just in Tappan Square, so there might be a total of five,” first-year Jessica Hicks said. “I know one lives on north campus because it sometimes runs near Burton Hall, where I live. I find them to be magnificent.”

The valued creature is, of course, none other than the albino squirrel.

Arguments have even arisen about the exact number of albino squirrels among members of the recently-created Facebook group, which is dedicated to the fluffy white residents of Oberlin. The verdict is that there are at least three albino squirrels in Tappan Square and at least one on North Quad.

Sophomore Will McCraw confirms that there are at least three of them on Tappan Square.

“I see them on a regular basis to and from the art building, all three of them out and scavenging at the same time,” he said. “Always the same time of day, too, around 4:30 p.m. or so. Very curious.”

What is even more curious is that the white squirrels may not even be albinos, according to some theories.

“You will find claims that the squirrels are white squirrels, not albinos, because the eyes are black rather than pink,” said Professor of Biology Roger Laushman.

He explained that “most people are prone to think of a single ‘gene’ that is responsible for pigment production, so that all pigment production would be affected by one mutation, i.e. skin, eye, fur, etc. However, this is incorrect in mammals, which have many genes that influence pigment production.”

Laushman added that if an organism normally produces a pigment, a mutation that results in a failure to produce the pigment is a form of albinism.

“In many cases, animals are indeed albino for skin/fur pigments and lack eye pigments,” Laushman said. “The different genes are close to one another on the same chromosome, so they are more likely to be inherited together.”

Mutations that result in albinism are only expressed if the mutant gene is inherited from both parents, which in general is a very rare phenomenon.

In large populations with constant movement of individuals, it is unlikely for two individuals that carry the same mutant gene to mate. However, two things happen in small towns such as Oberlin, as well as in others from the list.

“You have relatively small, isolated populations, so there is more often mating between close relatives, which leads to a higher frequency of the albino mutants,” Laushman said. 

“And — this is important — there is much less risk for albinos as compared to wild populations.”

A white member of any species would generally be an immediate prey to predators. In Tappan Square, though, this is highly unlikely. Not only are the white squirrels not endangered, but they have the opportunity to play the role of local celebrities.

“In this world of woe and despair, some things are beacons of hope — beautiful tributes to the beauty inherent in nature and mankind,” said first-year Jacob Grossman.

“Today, I was walking downtown through Tappan Square when the resident albino squirrel emerged from behind a tree,” he continued. “It was a cold, crisp, sunny day and the light rebounded from its fur and into my eyes like a bolt from the heavens. Reflected on albino fur, the sunlight that sustains us day to day was more real, more celestial, more powerful.

“For a moment today, I communed with that which knits together reality and the Tappan Square albino squirrel was my conduit.”

Other Oberlin students have also expressed their love for the white creatures.

“I am in love with the albino squirrels because they dare to be different than the other normal squirrels,” said first-year Rachel Randall.

“Also, I pity them because they are a bit more scraggly than the brown squirrels. But that’s okay because their cool albinoness makes up for it.”

Many students’ happy memories are connected to the fluffy rodents.

“About a month ago, I spent a good hour watching them and one would would keep running down the tree to stare at me about two feet away,” sophomore Allison Hourcade said. “Then run up...then run down, then run up. Then it made a 15-foot leap from one tree to another...almost missed. Struggled for a second, looked at me with embarrassment, then flounced away when it was sure I was impressed.”

Hicks shared some special feelings of admiration of and inspiration with Oberlin’s white squirrels: “What beauty! So marvelous! I should write a poem about them in the style of Keats.”


The Review News Service: News, weather, sports and more, in your ObieMail every Sunday and Wednesday night. (Click here to subscribe.)