Melanism as a potential thermal benefit in eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger)

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Melanistic fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) have expanded westward and increased in frequency in the Omaha, Nebraska, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, metropolitan areas. The selective advantage of melanism is currently unknown, but thermal advantages have been hypothesized, especially in winter. No difference in metabolic response curves were measured between melanistic (black) and rufus (orange) fox squirrels. When exposed to sunny skies, both melanistic and rufus squirrels had higher surface (skin and fur) temperature as ambient temperatures increased. Melanistic squirrel surface temperatures did not differ when squirrels were exposed to sunny or cloudy skies. However, rufus individuals showed significantly lower increases in surface temperatures when under cloudy skies. During fall months, rufus individuals were about 1.5 times more active throughout the day than melanistic individuals. However, in winter, melanistic fox squirrels were approximately 30% more active in the mornings (before 13:00) compared to rufus squirrels. Pre-winter body condition was higher in melanistic (25.5 ± 1.8 g/cm) compared to rufus (20.30 ± 3.6 g/cm) fox squirrels; however, there were no significant differences between melanistic (22.8 ± 1.4 g/cm) and rufus (23.9 ± 0.8 g/cm) fox squirrel post-winter body condition. The results of this study indicate that melanistic fox squirrels may have a slight winter thermal advantage over rufus fox squirrels by maintaining higher skin temperatures.

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