North Carolina Science Scene
A Duke community guide to science attractions across NC
#5 | White Squirrel Research Institute
The small town of Brevard in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina will celebrate an unusual holiday on Feb. 2: White Squirrel Day. Yes, you read that right. White squirrels—not albino, and not to be confused with other allegedly weather-predicting rodentia celebrated on the same day. These charismatic critters have a surprisingly storied past and even their own dedicated research institute.
Above: A Brevard white squirrel shows its white coat, characteristic patches of color, and pigmented eyes. Image courtesy of Lydia Cox.
You might be asking yourself why one small western North Carolina town has a booming population of white squirrels. To begin with, these squirrels are a colony of eastern gray squirrels—the most common type of squirrel in the Southeastern United States—with a genetic mutation that causes a white coat. Unlike albinos, their eyes still retain pigmentation, and they retain a patch of color on their foreheads and backs. The standing origin story of this unique squirrel colony describes a pair of white squirrels that were originally part of a Florida carnival display in the 1950s but later escaped, were captured as pets, gifted to a relative in Brevard, escaped again, and established a breeding population in the area.
The squirrels are still considered rare around town but locals report that the best place to view them is on the campus of Brevard College. Brevard embraces its pale arboreal residents with street signs, statues, a local radio station, the White Squirrel Shoppe, and even the White Squirrel Weekend fair and music festival.
Above: White Squirrel Weekend in Brevard. Image courtesy of Lydia Cox.
But perhaps the most interesting part of the white squirrel phenomenon is the White Squirrel Research Institute. Established in 1997 by Brevard College professor and research biologist Robert Glesner, the institute is dedicated to conducting a long-term study of the population of white squirrels. The primary mode of study at the institute is an annual census fittingly deemed the Squirrel Count. The goal of the census is to assess the percentage of squirrels in Brevard that display the white coat variant. To conduct the census, volunteers observe different sectors of the town during given time windows and record the number of white and gray squirrels they see.
But this data isn’t just used to keep count of Brevard’s furry friends: based on the findings of these squirrel surveys, researchers suspect that the white coat color has a complex mode of genetic inheritance. The squirrels are thought to display heterosis, an inheritance pattern in which hybrid offspring experience greater adaptive benefits than either dominant or recessive parents. The Squirrel Count also revealed that the percentage of white coat variants in the squirrel population of Brevard has doubled from approximately 20% to a whopping 40% over 15 years. The annual census has been on hiatus since the passing of the institute’s founder in 2012, but the organization hopes to resume soon.
If white squirrels have piqued your interest and you’d like to celebrate White Squirrel Day, consider donating to the institute to ‘adopt’ a squirrel and help fund wildlife rehabilitation in the area.
Hours: 9am-5pm Monday-Friday
Admission cost: none
Recommended Excursion: Fall Break/Long weekend
Located in downtown Brevard, the White Squirrel Research Institute is an approximately four-and-a-half-hour drive from Duke University.