Michigan State University's park-like campus of 5,000 acres is an excellent habitat for squirrels.
The black squirrel, which is actually a color variation of the common gray squirrel, is found all over campus, and may cause double-takes from visitors who aren't used to seeing them. However, few people know the true story of how such a large population of black squirrels came to live in East Lansing.
Joe Johnson, chief wildlife biologist at MSU's Kellogg Biological Station, admits to having transferred some of the critters. He caught 20 black squirrels and relocated them onto campus in the early 1960s at the request of MSU President John A. Hannah.
"President Hannah said that he wanted two things," Johnson said. "He wanted Canadian geese on the Red Cedar River and black squirrels on campus. I guess he thought the squirrels were really unique." The black squirrel is actually native to Michigan, but was almost wiped out when they were over hunted.
"Gray squirrels are a unique beauty that can live with us because they are very adaptable animals," Johnson said, explaining how the tree dwellers were able to flourish in East Lansing and beyond. Their color varies from gray with a reddish cast to their coat, to dark brown, to black, or any combination of the above.
The black-coated squirrels occur more in the northern US and Canada. Studies have shown that black squirrels have 18% lower heat loss than light colored gray squirrels allowing them to withstand harsh winters.
Sources: The State News FACT or FICTION? by Amy Davis
and University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.