Science18 Nov 2010 04:10 pm
“I pledge to uphold the objects of the Albino Squirrel Preservation Society, to foster compassion and goodwill towards albino squirrels, and to dedicate myself to the protection of all squirrels, especially those that are albino.” – the mission statement of The Albino Squirrel Preservation Society.
Dustin Ballard and Gary Chang, then students at the University of Texas, founded the Albino Squirrel Preservation Society (ASPS) in April 2001. Like most leafy college towns worth their salt, cute bushy-tailed squirrels are a commonplace sight on the campus grounds. However, UT also proudly claims the distinction of being home to an unusual number of rare snowy-white squirrels. These “albino squirrels” enjoy a cult-like status on campus, thanks in part to an ancient UT superstition that claims that spotting a white squirrel shortly before an exam brings you good luck.
Predictably, many an unprepared, and/or procrastinating, and/or intoxicated UT coed has spent hours hunting for a glimpse of one of these elusive squirrels during finals week, when they would have been better served by studying. Their task is made more Sisyphean by the fact that these snowy-white creatures are extremely vulnerable to predators due to their lack of camouflage. This represents a major bummer for students hoping to spot a bushy-tailed white knight on the way to their economics exam, and hasn’t been great for the white squirrels either…..
Suffice to say, the ASPS club was created in reaction to the dwindling population of “albino squirrels,” and has dedicated itself to promoting “squirrel awareness” through flyers, rallies, etc. The popularity of the club is such that in less than a year, the UT Austin chapter became one of the largest official student organizations in the University’s history. After widespread popularity at UT, ASPS chapters formed at the University of North Texas and the University of Pennsylvania. In the following months, chapters began springing up at college campuses from Canada to England.
The truth that dare not speak its name at UT is that none of the white squirrels on the campus are actually albino! Albinism, in both humans and animals, is a defect of melanin production that results in little or no color (pigment) in the skin, hair, and eyes. Albinism occurs when one of several genetic defects makes the body unable to produce or distribute melanin, a natural substance that gives color to your hair, skin, and iris of the eye. Now, it is clear that it is the amount of melanin that determines the fur color and genetic changes may sometimes result in black and white squirrels. However, such squirrels are quite rare, as such genetic changes are occur only rarely.
This results in occasional sighting of white squirrels, which people automatically and wrongly assume are albino squirrels. In fact, most white furred squirrels are tow-furred due not to albinism, but to leucism, a phenomenon caused by a recessive gene found within certain eastern gray squirrels. The tell-tale difference is that these white squirrels have dark-colored eyes, which cannot be seen in albino squirrels, which have either pink or blue eyes. Thus, “albino squirrels” are even rarer than their merely white counterparts.
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