An unusual hairless critter has been spotted scurrying around the Saskatoon area.
Brittnee Leveque’s son was one of the first to catch a glimpse of the mysterious rodent.
Leveque was attending a wedding at Circle H. Ranch, located about 10 minutes outside of Saskatoon, when her three-year-old son called her to come see a cat he found outside.
She went with him and was surprised to see three black, hairless rodents scurrying in and out of a hole.
“I was like, ‘oh, those aren’t kittens,'” said Leveque, who was trying to figure out what the creatures could be.
She decided to take a video of the animals and post it to Facebook. Her mother-in-law shared her findings on a local gardening page.
The post attracted a great deal of attention, as people tried to figure out what the animals were.
Local biologist Jenna James was finally able to crack open the mystery. She identified the creature as a Richardson’s ground squirrel — commonly referred to as a gopher — except these critters were hairless.
She reached out to colleagues and experts to confirm her findings.
They concluded she was correct.
“I’ve just never come across this before,” said James. “Even some of the experts in this field have never seen a naked or a hairless Richardson’s ground squirrel.”
She believes the creatures are hairless due to a random genetic mutation that causes hairlessness in animals. She said that this species is likely localized and doesn’t think the hairless squirrels will be seen outside of the Saskatoon area.
“I think it’s really quite a rare occurrence.”
Experts have never seen this before
“[Hairlessness] is exceedingly rare in mammals,” said Gail Michener, who is a professor at the University of Lethbridge. She has studied Richardson’s ground squirrels for decades and has never seen anything like the critters spotted by Leveque.
When Michener first came to Canada from Australia, she was astonished to see how little many knew about ground squirrels.
“I just wanted to learn more about these animals and — as so often happens in science — one discovery leads to another and leads to another and I ended up spending 40 years or so studying Richardson’s ground squirrels.”
Michener said the hairless ground squirrels identified near Saskatoon might be quite uncomfortable as they face the risk of sunburn above ground and friction below ground.
“They might have more medical problems just because they don’t have a normal coat to protect their skin and keep them safe,” said Michener.
And both Michener and James think the lifespan of these unique ground squirrels will be quite short.
“Because they’re dark, they might be more visible to predators so I’m not expecting that they’ll do very well and might die off over the winter,” said James.
Still, the scientists are amazed by their existence.
“I have never seen anything like this…it’s just so rare,” Michener said.