There is an old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” which particularly applies in the case of an unusual species of squirrel from Borneo.
Most squirrels’ diets consist of nuts, berries, tree buds, and the content of unprotected bird feeders; the tufted ground squirrels’ habits, however, are significantly more sinister than suet thievery.
Vampire Squirrel Sneak Attack
The tufted ground squirrel, also known by its Latin name, Rheithrosciurus macrotis, enjoys springing through trees, eating giant acorns and communing with other squirrels. According to Bornean hunters, however, the tufted ground squirrel sometimes strays away from its usual fare in favor of a carnivorous approach.
Hunters say the squirrels wait in low branches and drop onto the backs of passing muntjac. A small species of deer, the muntjac is ill matched against its surprise adversary. The squirrels skitter to the necks of the deer and quickly sever the muntjacs’ jugular veins. After that, the squirrels wait for the deer to die and then feast upon the unfortunate muntjacs’ internal organs.
These unlikely tales stem from the accounts of native Bornean Dayak hunters, who frequently find muntjac deer disemboweled in the forest. According to the hunters, a disemboweled deer with none of its flesh eaten is surely a squirrel kill. Other squirrel victims have allegedly included domestic chickens in villages close to the forest.
Teenage Researcher Documents the Unusual Squirrel
The latest information about tufted ground squirrels emerged after Taprobanica journal published a paper written by conservation scientist Erik Meijaard, his wife Rona Dennis, an independent remote sensing scientist, and their daughter Emily Mae in June 2014. Meijaard and his co-authors gathered visual information for the paper from motion-activated trail cams. Emily Mae, who was 15 at the time of the paper’s publication and a student at the British International School in Jakarta, did the majority of the writing and analysis.
In addition to their ferocious tendencies, tufted ground squirrels have another claim to fame. They have some of the biggest, fluffiest tails of any mammal species known to science. In fact, when scientists analyzed trail cam pictures, they estimated that the squirrels’ tails equaled roughly 130 percent of the rodents’ body sizes. The squirrels themselves are roughly twice as large as average-sized tree-dwelling squirrels in Borneo and other countries.
The reason for the squirrels’ enormous tails remains unknown. Theories about the size include the tails’ potential to act as a distraction to predators like clouded leopards, who might otherwise snap the squirrels up for lunch. The most similarly endowed creatures include the ring-tailed cat, the common striped possum, and the squirrel glider. In all three other species, however, the tail is slightly smaller: roughly equal in comparison with the body.
Area Remains Largely Unexplored
The tufted ground squirrel is a relatively unstudied species. It prefers to hide in dense forest, so the only clear pictures of the animal are those taken by motion-sensing trail cams like those used by Meijaard and his contemporaries. Local lore aside, scientific reports of the squirrel are currently scarce.
Other unusual animal species also live in Borneo. A small fanged deer known as the mouse-deer, or chevrotain, is known to hide underwater and hold its breath when hunting dogs pursue it. Borneo’s animal diversity is so extreme, in fact, that it has helped shape the theory of evolution. Parts of the heart of Borneo remain largely unexplored, making the country a hotbed for new species discovery.
Further evidence of the tufted ground squirrel’s carnivorous activities may yet emerge. Vampire squirrels and fanged deer aside, however, rainforests are fascinating places filled with a staggering number of different animal species. Read more about various animal species found in the rainforest and beyond at the Rainforest Site.
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