By Dr. Robert Norman, Clinical Professor of Dermatology, Nova Southeastern University
I was biking through J. B. Starkey Wilderness Park along a stretch of longleaf pines recently and saw a fast moving creature bounding up a tree. With an extra long tail, I was not sure what I had just witnessed. About a mile later I saw another similar species and stopped to take a video. I suspected it was a fox squirrel, although I had rarely seen one in the wild. After I studied the video and investigated, my suspicion was correct.
The fox squirrel, also known as the eastern fox squirrel or Bryant’s fox squirrel, is the largest species of tree squirrel native to North America. In Florida they are often named the southern fox squirrel. Fox squirrels are larger and heavier than gray squirrels.
It can reach a length up to 27.6 inches and a weight between one to three pounds. This species has an overall color that varies from black to brown with a black head, white ears, and a white snout. Fox squirrels are known for their long bushy tails and their strong hind legs which enables them to leap far.
Fox squirrels are strictly diurnal, non-territorial, and spend more of their time on the ground than most other tree squirrels. They are still, however, agile climbers.
They construct two types of homes called “dreys”, depending on the season. Summer dreys are often little more than platforms of sticks high in the branches of trees, while winter dens are usually hollowed out of tree trunks by a succession of occupants over as many as 30 years. Cohabitation of these dens is not uncommon, particularly among breeding pairs. The southern fox squirrel typically has two breeding seasons each year. The winter breeding season is from October to February and the summer breeding season is from April to August. Most nests are made of Spanish moss, pine needles, twigs, and leaves, while a few nests are made within tree cavities. Females average one litter per year with an average of 2.3 offspring per litter. Young are weaned at 90 days and sexual maturity is reached at about nine months.
The diet of southern fox squirrel primarily consists of longleaf pine seeds and turkey oak acorns, but they will also eat fungi, fruit, and buds. Fox squirrels will form caches by burying food items for later consumption. They like to store foods that are shelled and high in fat, such as acorns and nuts. Shelled foods are favored because they are less likely to spoil than non-shelled foods, and fatty foods are valued for their high energy density.
Fox squirrels are most abundant in open forest stands with little understory vegetation and are not found in stands with dense undergrowth. Ideal habitat is small stands of large trees interspersed with agricultural land. The size and spacing of pines and oaks are among the important features of fox squirrel habitat. The actual species of pines and oaks themselves may not always be a major consideration in defining fox squirrel habitat. Fox squirrels are often observed foraging on the ground several hundred meters from the nearest woodlot. Fox squirrels also commonly occupy forest edge habitat.
The main threat to the southern fox squirrel population is the destruction of their habitats. Habitat loss has been significant as it is estimated that only 10-20% of original southern fox squirrel native habitat is still intact, most of it having been logged, converted to pasture, degraded by lack of fire, or used for agriculture, commercial and residential development. Improperly burned longleaf pine communities also affect the fox squirrel’s population as it prevents longleaf pine seeds from properly reproducing in the bare ground. This species also has an increased chance of getting hit by a vehicle due to their typically slow gait (locomotion).
Where can you find this amazing creature—the southern fox squirrel?
Get out into The Great Florida Outdoors!
Reference Southern Fox Squirrel | FWC (myfwc.com)
Dr. Robert Norman
Clinical Professor of Dermatology
Director–Center for Geriatric Dermatology, Integrative Dermatology and Neuro-Dermatology
10820 Sheldon Rd
Tampa, Florida 33626
10422 US Hwy 301 S
Riverview, Florida 33578
Dr. Norman is an advanced master naturalist graduate of the FMNP program from UF and a board-certified dermatologist based in Tampa and Riverview. He can be reached at 813-880-7546.
70 books (series editor of 39) ● 300+ articles ● 150 Lectures and Blogs
45 videos and films ● 18 photo calendars and exhibits ● 4 music CDs
Tampa Bay Medical Hero Award (2008)
● Hadassah Humanitarian Award (2012)
Read more of Dr. Norman’s articles here. https://dunndealpublications.com/dr-robert-normans-articles/