Friday, June 24, 2011

Sand Trapped - The Big Cypress Fox Squirrel

People don’t appreciate squirrels. One person’s pest is another person’s treasure. Such was the case as I drove past a golf course on my way out of a gated community in Fort Myers. Bounding across the fairway was a large Big Cypress Fox Squirrel (BCFS). I slammed on the brakes and jumped out, camera in hand. The tan-bellied, salt-and-pepper backed squirrel was as interested in me as I was of it and we stood for a moment like two gunslingers, unflinching. A disgusted woman shook her head and headed after her ball.

The Big Cypress Fox Squirrel (Sciurus nigra avicennia), is an endemic subspecies here in southwest Florida. They’re found from the Caloosahatchee south through the mangroves along the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike most of Florida’s terrestrial mammals, the BCFS are diurnal (day active), ground foragers. They feed on pine and cypress cones, palmetto berries, bromeliad seeds and a host of other native seeds and fruits. They prefer an open understory in the pine flatwoods, cypress swamps and mangroves. What is unusual is that as development continues to slice up their habitat, leaving it more and more fragmented, the squirrels have taken to golf courses which retain characteristics of their preferred habitat – open grazing areas with forested refuges.
Golf course BCFS have been shown to be more gregarious. They mate year round and are less susceptible to food shortages. Land managers have helped protect the species by leaving natural vegetation and planting trees, shrubs and grasses around the golf courses that specifically benefit the BCFS. The problem is sustainability. Increasingly these squirrel-occupied urban islands become more separated from natural communities and any link to other populations requires hazardous and often fatal road crossings.

Additionally, foraging around a golf course may seem like the life of leisure but without the protection of a forest canopy the squirrels must keep an eye skyward for birds of prey.

Their relaxed social standards could put them at risk as well. Normally solitary, golf course squirrels that congregate are at greater risk of spreading diseases to one another like Squirrel Poxvirus. A BCFS was found to be infected in 2010 and although an outbreak has not been reported, the virus is spread by contact and would have the greatest impact on sociable squirrels.

Golf courses have benefited BCFS to a degree but ultimately these populations must remain connected to their backwoods neighbors or they are all doomed. Will anyone miss them when they’re gone? 


  1. Do the social squirrels get together for cocktails at the clubhouse in the afternoon? Interesting to think of golf courses as habitat.

  2. I need to post another picture. The mama squirrel was sliding on her belly around the green searching for food. Truly enjoying foraging.

  3. Hello. My name is John Kellam and I am a biologist with the National Park Service at Big Cypress National Preserve. Since 2007, I have been the lead biologist on the first successful home range and habitat use study of the Big Cypress fox squirrel in its natural environment.

    While searching online for Big Cypress fox squirrel images, I saw your images of one eating a Tillandsia stem - these are great photos! I am putting together a fox squirrel PowerPoint presentation for the preserve and would love to have your photos be used in it, as one of the eating food items examples. I would put your name and copyright image on each photo; your images would only be used for the PowerPoint.
    I can be contacted at: office 239 695 1173
    Thanks, John