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‘Vampire’ squirrel caught on film

Researchers have acquired what may be the first video of the remarkable Bornean tufted ground squirrel (Rheithrosciurus macrotis).

Last year, scientists reported that the species has the fluffiest tail of all mammals. In stark contrast to that cuddly appearance, local folklore has it that the 35-centimeter-long squirrel will attack forest deer and drink their blood. The squirrel is elusive and mysterious with much of its basic biology unknown. Although researchers have caught fleeting glimpses and snapped a few photographs, no videos existed.

The new video comes from an effort to study the ecology of Gunung Palung National Park in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan. Researchers set up 35 motion-triggered video cameras throughout the reserve’s diversity of forest ecosystems. Within the first few weeks, they spotted the squirrel foraging through leaves on the ground. “I was sitting at the bar in Jakarta waiting to come home, looking through the pictures, and this popped up,” says Andrew Marshall, a conservation biologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who works with researchers from the park staff and Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

Although the cameras will shoot in color, they switch to infrared in low light, yielding these black-and-white images of the squirrel as it forages in the shady tropical forest. If they get more footage, the team hopes to learn about the ecology of the animal, such as exactly what kind of habitat it prefers and its mating behavior. Future videos, for example, might reveal whether the fluffy tail has any role in attracting mates.

“The video is a good reminder of how little we still know about most species on Borneo and how much we can learn,” says Erik Meijaard, a conservation scientist with Borneo Futures in Jakarta, who is not involved in the work.

The squirrel has one of the most specialized diets in the forest, preferring the rock-hard nuts of the canarium tree—exactly how it manages to gnaw through them is another mystery—so the researchers have set up more cameras around one of the trees that now has fruit.

As for the legend of the animal’s vampirelike tendencies, it’s possible that the video might capture the animal drinking the blood of a deer, but Marshall thinks it’s highly unlikely. “I would be very surprised if it were true.” 

(Video credit: U. Michigan/Victoria University/Gunung Palung National Park Bureau)