The Wildlife Of Mt. Lemmon — Abert’s Squirrel
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One of the creatures I was interested in photographing on our day trip to Mt. Lemmon was an Abert’s Squirrel. We saw one foraging in deep shade five minutes after we arrived at the summit and saw no others the entire day. Finding this one was a stroke of good luck. There’s a lot of forest up in the mountains but not many hiking trails. Animals can easily hide from prying humans with cameras if they want to.
These are handsome animals. They’re about the size of an eastern Gray Squirrel but have some distinguishing characteristics, notably their extremely long ears, which on some individuals appear even longer due to long tufts of hair at the tips. This individual lacked the tufts.
Abert’s Squirrels inhabit only locations where Ponderosa Pines grow. In the Tucson area that’s mostly at elevations above about 6000 feet. The squirrels’ range begins in the central Rocky Mountains, extends down through Arizona and well into northern Mexico. Always, the squirrels follow the pines. In the Tucson area that means that these squirrels can be found only near the summits of some of the higher mountains, such as Mt. Lemmon.
Now, here’s an interesting question. How did these squirrels get here? The mountains are not contiguous. Mountains with suitable squirrel habitat often are separated from each other by miles, or dozens of miles, of desert. The desert is unsuitable for the squirrels and I can’t imagine one of these animals hiking for a few dozen miles across the desert to get from one mountain range to the next. So how did these squirrels populate the mountaintops?
Here’s a theory. The squirrels were here before the desert was here. A few thousand years or so ago, give or take, what is desert now was something entirely different. At the end of the last Ice Age, and before, the valleys that separate Arizona’s mountain ranges were much cooler and wetter than they are today. The valleys, or at least the lower slopes of mountains, may have harbored Ponderosa Pines and they may have created linked pathways that enabled the squirrels to traverse what is now desert. When the valleys heated up the squirrels simply moved uphill, climbing higher with each generation until, today, their natural habitat became mountain summits.
Hey, it’s a theory and I could be wrong but, realistically, what other explanation can account for these squirrels’ presence on mountain summits? Birds can fly from one suitable habitat to the next. Squirrels, including Abert’s Squirrel, lack the necessary physical abilities to travel by any manner other than hoofing it.
Image made with a Canon 5Diii, Canon 100-400 f3.5L IS II @ 400mm, M setting, auto ISO @ 6400, f7.1 @ 1/500.