You might have seen Twitter light up recently with photos of a funky, rangy, weirdly beautiful rodent. Colored black, beige, orange, brown, and a hue somewhere between mauve and purple, the Malabar giant squirrel, more commonly referred to as the Indian giant squirrel (Ratufa indica), attracted a lot of attention.
By the social media reaction, one should be forgiven for thinking a new species had just been discovered. The story many Twitter users linked to and retweeted — which included some colorful photos of the squirrel — included the sub-headline, "They're found this way in the wild!" But lo, we have known about the Indian giant squirrel for quite some time.
A Brief Review of Squirrels
But first let's talk a bit about squirrels in general. There are more than 270 known squirrel species today, and they're categorized into three groups: tree, ground and flying. They originated in what is now North America, and they are considered endemic to all continents except Australia and Antarctica.
All modern tree squirrels, including Ratufa (our colorful Indian giant squirrel), descended from Douglas-sciurus jeffersoni, a type of tree squirrel with fossil records that date back 36 million years (though it likely was around long before that).
"Ratufa species, the Asian giant squirrels, seem to have genetically split from the rest of the squirrels relatively early in the history of squirrel diversification," says Thaddeus McRae, professor of biology and a behavioral ecology researcher at Lee University in Tennessee.
This split took place between 31 million and 36 million years ago, when the planet was experiencing "abrupt cooling and climatic fluctuation, and also a lot of extinctions in other animal groups," according to a 2003 study by Duke University biologist John M. Mercer.
Ratufa was likely discovered — and hunted — by humans many thousands of years ago.
All Over India
But having spent a good deal of time on the planet doesn't make these colorful squirrels any less interesting.
In fact, Indian giant squirrels "are basically the squirrel version of an orangutan," says McRae, who also published a study on alarm calls of the Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). (You can hear some of their calls in this story on Wired.) "[They are] big, solitary, tropical, forest canopy-dwelling species that eat a lot of different plant parts, a few insects and have awesome hair."
Found mainly in forests in south, central and east India, Indian giant squirrels are truly giant by squirrel standards. Full-grown adults measure up to 3 feet (.9 meters) long (including tail), and they weigh nearly 5 pounds (2.2 kilograms). By comparison, an Eastern gray squirrel measures up to 20 to 22 inches (.5 to .55 meters) long (with tail) and weighs about a pound to a pound and a half (.45 to .68 kilograms).
Indian giant squirrels sport round, almost Panda-like ears, and they have large paws and powerful claws for climbing. As they spend most of their time treating trees like kids treat jungle gyms, these squirrels are athletic: Indian giant squirrels can leap more than 20 feet (6 meters)!
Its predators include birds of prey, snakes and leopards.
Why So Flamboyant?
Speaking of being eaten, you might be wondering why Indian giant squirrels are colored so flamboyantly? Don't the bright colors give them away to these predators?
"Tropical squirrels, and Asian squirrels in particular, seem to include some very brightly colored squirrels," McRae says. "I can think of a couple possible explanations. One is that the patches of color break up the visual shape of the squirrel and could make it harder to recognize as a squirrel to a hunting predator. Even light patches on a dark background can have this effect. Not camouflage exactly, but pattern disruption. 'That's not my shoulder, that's a patch of sky.'
"Another hypothesis," McRae says, "is that the different colors help squirrels recognize each other, at least at a species level, so they can discern potential mates and rivals from other creatures. Those same patterns could potentially enable visual recognition of individuals as well, although squirrels in general do a lot of communication with scent."
Indian giant squirrels are fairly common. While they were listed as "vulnerable" in 1996 on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, their numbers have risen and they are now considered a species of "Least Concern." That's good news for this crazy-colored rodent.
Want to see one in real life? You won't find them in the wild in North America. Your best bet is to head to India and look high up in the trees. Or find them on Twitter, as new people "discover" them.