A gray squirrel of a decidedly different color caught Taylor Nyman's eye Monday morning in Key Largo: The squirrel scampering through a backyard tree was mostly white, although with a dark tail and other markings.
"It was pretty interesting to see because I've only ever seen brown squirrels," said Taylor, a Coral Shores High School student and yearbook staffer. "My first instinct was, of course, to take some photos of the squirrel before it could leave."
Gray squirrels are common in the Upper Keys but white squirrels are not -- or anywhere else, for that matter.
The white squirrel spotted off the U.S. 1 oceanside around mile marker 103 is "leucistic," not albino, said Dana C. Bryan, a Florida Park Service biologist and policy coordinator. It is a gray squirrel with pigmentation issues.
Albino squirrels lack the melanin pigment, leaving them virtually all white with pink eyes.
Leucistic squirrels have dark eyes and varying amounts of gray patches. Development of their color pigment was interrupted, not totally absent, Bryan said.
As a graduate student in Tallahassee, Bryan studied a colony of white squirrels on the grounds of a nearby museum.
White squirrels "are not that common but you will find little populations of them," he said.
"You'd think that predators would be able to pick them off more than gray squirrels," he said, but some populations seem to take hold.
It helps that human neighbors tend to find them "cuter" than common squirrels, he noted. The Tallahassee white-squirrel colony apparently can be traced back to a breeding pair kept at a North Florida hotel decades ago.
The Key Largo white squirrel would be classified a "piebald leucistic" gray squirrel, Bryan said after seeing its photo.
Several communities like Brevard, N.C., and Olney, Ill., celebrate their relatively large communities of white squirrels. White squirrels have previously been reported from "the northern Keys," according to white-squirrel websites.