Gray mist hung in the air over Lake Namakagon, and clouds diffused the early morning sunlight. Fall colors seem deeper and richer in wet weather and half-light like this. As I turned up County Highway D, I was dismayed to find it turned to gravel, with bright orange Road Work Ahead signs adding their own garish color to the landscape. I admit I was a little irritated that crunchy gravel, washboards, and large machinery would interrupt my early morning scenic drive.
At first, I traveled at about my normal speed, since the curves and scenery of this winding road encourage slow driving anyway. Then I reached the flagger, with the STOP sign showing. After a moment of irritation, I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye. Something small, white, and furry sat quivering in the roadside grass. It scurried a few steps, then froze and looked alert on its haunches. From nose to bushy white tail, the critter was only about 8 inches long – the size of a least chipmunk.
Least chipmunks are the smallest and most widely distributed North American chipmunk, focusing their range in the north and west. Their larger cousins, the Eastern chipmunks, range throughout Wisconsin and the Eastern United States. Both are usually light brown, with dark brown and white stripes, live in burrows in a variety of habitats, feed primarily on seeds, and spend the winter underground sleeping and eating occasionally. They do not need special camouflage to blend in with the snow like snowshoe hares, so why was this one white?
Two different genetic conditions result in pale animals. The most familiar is albinism. If you have been to the Museum, you probably noticed the albino deer we have on display. In albino animals like this one, two recessive genes combine and result in the loss of the animal’s ability to produce an important brown pigment called melanin. Melanin protects us from UV light, and increases as we get our summer suntan.
Without melanin, all parts of the animal are white or pink. The pink color, as in the eyes of a true albino, is a result of blood vessels showing through. Melanin is important for sight and eye development, and albino humans, as well as animals, often have impaired vision.
Another genetic condition results in animals with pale fur but normal eyes, or patches of white or pale colors. These critters are leucistic. Birdwatchers regularly report seeing lecuistic robins and other birds with unusual light patches.
In contrast, some animals produce far more melanin than usual. These melanistic animals are dark brown or black. Many folks comment on the black squirrel mount in the Museum’s collection. It is simply a melanistic gray squirrel. In contrast to albinism, melanism is often helpful to an animal for camouflage, and in the case of black leopards, it also gives them disease resistance.
People often attribute special mystical or spiritual significance to albino animals. In University of Texas tradition, seeing an albino squirrel before an exam confers good luck. In Ojibwe tradition, albino bucks represent the sacredness of all living things, and seeing one should remind us to contemplate our own spirituality.
I could not tell for sure which the scurrying chipmunk was – albino or lecuistic –but I knew I had to try to get a photo. I fumbled for my camera, then rolled down the window, turned off the engine, and snapped a few shots. Before long a cool breeze carrying the sweet scent of autumn leaves wafted through the window and past my nose. I took a deep breath and looked out at the sparkling water of Lake Namakagon. With the radio and engine off, my hurried brain quieted, too. This little white critter turned road construction from an inconvenience into moment of peace. Ah, the magic of nature!
For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, STAR POWER: Energy from the Sun, opened in May 2012 and will remain open until April, 2013.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com/