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Stumpy-Tailed Squirrel

Stumpy-Tailed Squirrels

Source: Personal Experience

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Gray squirrels sometimes lose their tails and grow back a short stump of a tail.

If you observe a population of gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) for a number of years, you may see this phenomenon once in a while. I can recall seeing about five different stumpy-tailed squirrels in my lifetime. Maybe I'm generally more observant of such things than most people, but I really haven't made a study of gray squirrels. I just notice things, and once in a while I notice a squirrel with a stumpy tail.

I actually observed the loss of the tail in one instance. My brothers and I, along with a couple of other kids from our neighborhood, were walking through our back yard in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania along about the mid-1960s. As we passed a bush, a squirrel bolted from the bush and ran right in front of us. Our dog, a nearly grown half-beagle/half-cocker spaniel pup, lunged for the terrified rodent. For an instant, I thought she got it, but then the squirrel scrambled up a maple tree and scolded us from the safety of a branch. But the dog had something in her mouth.

It was the squirrel's tail! It was just the skin and fur, not the bone and muscle, but it was the full length of the tail. We looked up at the squirrel again, and sure enough, he had only a naked pink rat-like tail. There wasn't much blood, and the squirrel was able to thrash his little whip of tail around just as he normally would when scolding a bunch of kids and a dog. (I assume that the tail, lacking any skin, soon withered and fell off, much as a baby's umbilical cord does.)

Later that summer, I noticed a squirrel in our neighborhood who only had half a tail. It was about five inches long, and it flopped behind the squirrel like a limp rag. It appeared to have no bone or muscle, and the squirrel could no longer use it for balance or wave and thrash it to signal his anger. It just hung there. As I recall, that squirrel was still around, with his distinctive floppy half-tail, for a good couple of years afterward.

In various locations over the years, I've seen other gray squirrels with these odd short, floppy tails. I have never seen another species of squirrel in this condition. Now, the only other members of the squirrel family that I actually know reasonably well amount to three other species - the eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus), the woodchuck (Marmota monax), and the red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) - but I've never seen or heard of any of these or any other squirrel that can lose and regrow its tail. (Okay, woodchucks have kind of stumpy tails to begin with, so I might not notice if this phenomenon happened to a woodchuck.)

The shortest tail I've ever seen on a gray squirrel, not counting the one that I saw immediately after his "accident," is also the one I've seen most recently. He lives in Mine Falls Park here in Nashua, New Hampshire, near the western end of the Mill Pond. His tail, what's left of it, is just about two inches long. Being so short, the tail is not so obviously floppy as the other stumpy tails I've seen, but if I get a chance to watch him closely, it appears that there is no bone or muscle in the tail.

I have seen this squirrel about five times in the past year. I first saw him on Christmas Eve, 2007, on the south side of the Mill Pond. He looked like a giant gray hamster. A month later, I saw him bounding across the clearing on the north side of the Mill Pond, and he could almost have been mistaken for a small rabbit.

Stumpy-tailed squirrel in a tree

Video of a gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) with a
stump tail scurrying up a tree.

Stumpy-tailed squirrel bounding like a rabbit

Video of a gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) with a
stump tail making his way along the north shore of the
Mill Pond. He could easily be mistaken for a small rabbit
as he scampers through the thicket.

I even saw him crossing the Mill Pond via the high-tension electric wires this past fall. That was a remarkable feat, considering that he couldn't use his tail for balance, but it's really another story.

Most recently, in November of 2008, I saw him in a large oak tree on the north side of the pond. I just caught a glimpse of something moving in the tree, and it immediately registered as something non-squirrelly. Years ago, I had seen a family of fishers scrambling around in this tree, and I wondered if one of them was there again. I watched closely. Soon, I saw the movement again, and I saw that it was Stumpy!

It's kind of interesting that my first glimpse struck my brain at an almost subliminal level as "not a squirrel," even though I was not quite aware of what I had seen at a conscious level. Once I saw him clearly, I knew that it was a squirrel, but his stumpy tail makes him move differently than the way a squirrel usually moves.

Most interesting of all is that now I have a way to study squirrels a little more closely. This one squirrel is readily identifiable, so I know for sure that gray squirrels are able to maintain home ranges that encompass both sides of the Mill Pond (another story). I'll be able to get some idea of just how long gray squirrels live in nearly natural conditions. I don't know how old this squirrel was when he lost his tail, and I won't know for sure exactly when he dies, but I should be able to get some idea.

You see, even these much-despised "tree rats" that infest our suburbs can be interesting things to observe in their natural environment.

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