Sly and shy, Hillsborough's Unique Squirrel Species is an Elusive Treasure
The wind ruffles the goldenrod and grasses as you hike down a smooth trail bordered by tall pine trees. Suddenly, you catch movement out of the corner of your eye. You turn around and glimpse something furry disappearing around the trunk of a pine. Then, the creature darts away through the grass, and you see it clearly for just a moment. It's a fox! It's a squirrel! It's a…fox squirrel?
If you have ever seen a squirrel so large and fluffy that, on first glance, you thought it might be a fox, you may have witnessed a Sherman's fox squirrel. This bushy-tailed, tree-dwelling relative of the smaller eastern grey squirrel is most often found in habitats like pine flatwoods, pine savannah, and sandhill. Some fox squirrels can grow to over two feet in length, much larger than the eastern grey squirrel, which only grows up to 10 inches long. These creatures tend to prefer areas that are maintained by prescribed fire, with less brush and understory plants. Sherman's fox squirrels spend a lot of time foraging on the ground, so they could be spotted in open, grassy areas near stands of oak and pine, even in cattle pastures and rural lawns.
Sherman's fox squirrels are not listed as endangered or threatened in Florida, but they are a species of special concern, meaning that they may not be hunted or captured in any part of the state. These large squirrels spend lots of their time on the ground and are slower than their smaller cousins, putting them at high risk for vehicle collisions. Decades of fire suppression has played a part in habitat decline, causing open grassy areas to become overgrown with brush and oaks. Maintaining the natural fire cycle is a crucial part of protecting Florida's habitats, and a lack of fire can impact not only the plant species in an area, but also the animals that depend on them for food and shelter.
If you would like to see these elusive creatures for yourself, you might be in luck! Sherman's fox squirrels have been spotted in several Hillsborough County Nature Preserves. Check out the edges of pine flatwoods and oak hammock at Lower Green Swamp Nature Preserve and Blackwater Creek Nature Preserve in Plant City, Lake Frances Nature Preserve and Lake Dan Nature Preserve in Odessa, or Alafia River Corridor Nature Preserve (both the North and South sections) in Lithia. Sherman's fox squirrels tend to be shy and wary of humans, so you'll want to hike quietly and stay alert. When spotted, they hide quickly and try to keep tree trunks between themselves and human visitors, which can make it difficult to snap a picture. Even if you don't get a great photo, though, they're worth seeing on their own merit- after all, many Florida residents go their whole lives without catching a glimpse of a single fox squirrel.
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