Squirrels in Italy: Native and Alien

Did you know that in Italy there are many species and subspecies of squirrels?

The native red squirrel

The native red squirrel, known scientifically as ‘sciurus vulgaris linnaeus’, is the most common species of squirrel found in Italy, with exception to Salento and the Italian islands.

 

Outside of Italy, the red squirrel is considered one of the most widespread squirrel species in the world, with populations found in Northern Asia, Japan, China and Europe.

If you were to search long and hard enough throughout the different regions of Italy you will find three subspecies of the red squirrel, these include:

  • In Northern Italy (specifically the Alps and Apennine Mountains) you will find the ‘sciurus vulgaris fuscoater’
  • The ‘sciurus vulgaris italicus’ are endemic to central Italy
  • The ‘sciurus vulgaris meridionalis’, or the Italian black squirrel, are endemic to the southern Apennines in the southern Calabria region

 

The American Grey Squirrel

However, Italy isn’t just home to the red squirrel and its subspecies!

There is also a large and growing presence of the species known as ‘sciurus carolinensis’, or more commonly known as the American Eastern grey squirrel.

Since being accidentally released during the early 2000’s, this invasive species has wiped out huge numbers of the red squirrel population, prompting major conservation and control efforts to preserve the remaining red squirrels population.

The Southern Black Squirrel

The squirrels of central and northern Italy are characterized by different coloured coats, from grey to red shades, arriving at the nearly-total black of the Calabrian squirrel.

The Calabrian squirrel, known locally as “Scoiattolo Nero della Calabria” or commonly as the Italian black squirrel, until 2017, was considered only a subspecies of the European red squirrel.

However, studies revealed the black squirrel bore its own unique genetics and appearance, elevating them to be officially recognised as its own species.

The further South you go, the bigger (or fatter) they get.

It has been found that the body size of the black squirrel gradually increases the further south you travel. When compared directly to the red squirrel, the black squirrel outweighs them on average by a whopping 35%!

There is a scientific reason for this...

  • Southern Italy is world renowned for its stunning areas of natural beauty, boasting a number of luscious forests brimming with pine and oak trees.
  • Within these forests the black squirrels grow and spread in number (and weight!) as they feast upon the seeds from the trees.
  • These seeds are packed full of healthy fats and vitamins and make up an essential part of their diet (and explains their chunky exterior!).
  • Alongside the seeds from the trees, the black squirrels will also forage for insects, herbs, mushrooms and of course hazelnuts!

For many years, the usual border for the black squirrel species has been the Pollino National Park, known locally as Parco Nazionale del Pollino. Stretching over the border between Basilicata into the neighbouring region of Calabria, Pollino National Park covers almost 2,000 square kilometers, making it the largest national park in Italy.

Recently, the black squirrel has been slowly migrating and spreading into northern territories, with population numbers growing in the Lucan Apennines (Basilicata region).

Where to squirrel-watch in Southern Italy?

If you are visiting Calabria, it is surprisingly easy to get into the woodlands and be surrounded by all the natural beauty that Southern Italy has to offer.

If you’d like to see one of the black squirrels up close and personal then you’re in luck, as they are very easy to find if you know where to look!

Some of the key locations we suggest you check out include:

In their dark black coats, jumping from tree to tree, perfectly at home in their forests, the black Calabrian squirrel truly are a delight to watch!

 

Guest article by Mariarita Loprete

- August 26, 2021