Deep in the forests of Borneo lurks a squirrel with the largest tail-to-body mass ratio of any mammal—and a taste for deer blood. Ok, so maybe only one of these facts is verified, but odder animal-legends have proven true in the past.
The real name of this animal in question is the Tufted Ground squirrel, but it also goes by the nickname ‘Vampire squirrel’, given local stories that claim the animals perch in trees and descend on small deer, tearing through their aorta and eating their innards. There’s no new evidence clarifying the more bizarre elements of the squirrel’s story, but researchers recently caught the elusive critters on film for the first time.
Andrew Marshall, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment who has been documenting Borneo’s wildlife since 1996, says he and his team weren’t on the lookout for the Tufted Ground squirrel in particular. Recently he’s been working with researchers from Victoria University and the staff of Borneo’s Gunung Palung National Park to study the area’s ecology—setting dozens of camera traps and conducting formal surveys of the region’s plant and animal life. Marshall says he was shocked when one day, while reviewing footage, he saw the elusive squirrel briefly take centre stage.
‘We were all really excited; our video is the first we know of to capture the animal on film, moving about naturally,’ says Marshall. ‘Like the countless other still unknown tropical species out there, it takes a long time in the right place to stand any real chance of getting something like this. We really didn’t expect it.’
Marshall says he immediately alerted a colleague who worked with the species specifically, conservation scientist Erik Meijaard. Last year the mysterious squirrels made international headlines when Meijaard’s teenage daughter Emily Meijaard, with the help of her two-scientist parents, published a study using camera trap photos to establish the full extent of the animal’s record-breaking tail. Meijaard showed the footage to a contact that had covered the family’s study, and suddenly everyone was interested, Marshall says.
‘We’re hoping this is just the first in a long string of even better sightings,’ says Marshall. ‘Almost nothing is known about the species—even basics like their habitat preferences, whether they’re nocturnal or diurnal, or the reason for their amazing tails.’
As for the more violent squirrel-behaviour recounted by local hunters, Marshall says stranger tales have turned out to be based in fact, but in this case, the story just doesn’t make sense. ‘The squirrel doesn’t have the teeth or skull of a typical predator,’ he says.
The team will continue their work in Borneo, trying to detail the movement and location of a diverse array of wildlife. Marshall says given how many unknowns there still are when it comes to tropical forests and ecosystems, it’s crucial to document as much as possible about these unique habitats and the species that rely on them while they’re still intact.