Purple Squirrel Sparks Science Mystery

Percy and Connie Emert think it’s just nuts that they became famous overnight by just photographing a squirrel in their backyard. The Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania couple can’t believe that the squirrel is already a social media sensation with its own Facebook page and over 8,000 followers after only a week.

The Emert’s squirrel doesn’t waterski. It doesn’t do math. In fact it doesn’t do anything, which is usually required for instant Internet fame. This squirrel is just purple.

Now a purple squirrel is incredibly rare, with only two other sightings — one in Minnesota in 1997 and another in the UK in 2008. In fact, in engineering lingo a purple squirrel is the rarest of job candidates who has the education, skills and experience for a particular job. In other words it’s a mythological creature like a unicorn.

But this squirrel that Connie Emert tempted into a backyard trap with a pile of peanuts is real. The Emert’s insist they didn’t dye the animal or even touch it. They just trapped it (as they do to protect their backyard bird life from predators) and then released it into the wild.

Purple Squirrel, Photo by Percy Emert

Purple Squirrel, Photo by Percy Emert

But the squirrel’s bright pigment has many wondering how the squirrel turned purple. First seen on Accuweather.com, meteorologist Dan Kottlowski has an idea. “Squirrels get into all kinds of stuff. He could have gotten into some purple ink or purple paint at some point.”

Another Accuweather.com meterologist further suggested the critter was looking for someplace warm and fell into a port-a-potty filled with blue dye. Others feel the animal ate something that turned it’s fur and skin bright purple or the squirrel was exposed to high levels of environmental pollution.

The theories

Krish Pillai, a professor at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, says, “This is not good at all. That color looks very much like Tyrian purple. It is a natural organobromide compound seen in molluscs and rarely found in land animals. The squirrel (possibly) has too much bromide in its system.”

Tyrian purple was a very expensive dye that first appeared in the eastern Mediterranean in the 4th Century. Known as royal or imperial purple it was extracted from the mucous secretion of predatory sea snails. It was highly prized because it didn’t fade. Instead it became more vibrant over time and with more exposure to sunlight.

The naturally-occurring organobromine compound in sea snails also appears in algae, sponges, corals, sea slugs and other sea creatures. But it is rarely found in the biology of land mammals. A similar compound — organohalogen — has been found in the secretion of male flying foxes, which like sea snails use the chemical as a defense mechanism against predators.

Purple Squirrel, Photo by Percy Emert

Purple Squirrel, Photo by Percy Emert

The squirrel could have gotten bromide into its system from drinking water containing the chemical — and the bromide could have gotten into groundwater as a result of hydraulic fracturing, which can produce highly toxic wastewater. Fracking is very common in Pennsylvania.

John Griffin, Director of Humane Wildlife Services for the Humane Society, said “It might be possible that there was some introduction of a product into the nesting material that imparted this color to the fur, or accidental immersion/contact with a dying or coloring compound during [its] lifetime.” He also said “The color does not appear to be even which would make me think that it is likely to be the natural color of the fur.”

In 2008, Pete the purple squirrel turned color after he was believed to eat some ink from a printer toner cartridge in England.

Henry Kacprzyk, a curator at the Pittsburgh Zoo says the Pennsylvania purple squirrel looks like an ordinary gray squirrel but with a purple tinge. He didn’t get to examine the animal and only saw a picture of the critter on his phone. He’s seen red squirrels, albino squirrels but never a purple one.

He seems to think that the squirrel fell into some paint or dye. But he says The squirrel could have come in contact with a pokeberry patch, a bright berry that can change animal pigment purple. But he says pokeberries aren’t in season.

Kacprzyk says he doesn’t know if it’s possible that an organobromide chemical in frack water could be responsible because no one knows the composition of such fluids in Pennsylvania. He does say that purple is a very rare color for animals. He adds, “There are definitely birds that have coloration like this…but not mammals. Mammals don’t normally uptake color, ingest something it goes through and it comes out through their fur.”

Squirrel enthusiast Erik Stewart told AccuWeather.com, “If it has white hair on it at all, it’s probably not dyed.”

And even Percy Emert who got the closest look at the animal didn’t think it looked dyed. The backyard animal relocation specialist says, “Even the inside of its ears were purple. It wasn’t like it fell into something. It didn’t look like that at all.”

Emert released the squirrel in the wild after taking some pictures and posting them on Facebook. He says the purple animal appeared healthy except that its teeth were a brownish color.

Purple Squirrel, Photo by Percy Emert

Purple Squirrel, Photo by Percy Emert

A wildlife conservation officer for the Pennsylvania Game Commission agrees that it doesn’t look like anyone dyed the squirrel purple. Harold Cole thinks the squirrel ate something that turned the animal purple. He suggests maybe local pokeberries, an industrial compound, or even a food containing purple pigment.

While investigating the unusual occurrence Cole took samples of purple fur that the squirrel left behind inside the Emert’s cage as well as six to eight pieces of fur that Percy Emert took from the squirrel’s tail before releasing it.

But the Pennsylvania Game Commission isn’t going to pursue the mystery of the purple squirrel. Cole told MSNBC.com that the squirrel hairs could be passed along to a lab for analysis but that his agency won’t be doing that.

After all, it is not outside the realm of possibility that this is a naturally-occurring phenomenon. Cole says, “It’s not typical, but it’s not impossible.”

Unless the now wild squirrel makes another appearance and is subject to a thorough scientific evaluation we may never know what made the Pennsylvania purple squirrel…purple.

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