Kerala researchers upbeat after documenting 1st black palm squirrel in subcontinent

The journey to document what is billed as the first black palm squirrel to be scientifically documented in the Indian subcontinent, has taken a team of research professionals from Kerala 13 long years.

The detailed study report to scientifically prove it was published in the latest issue of Current Science brought out by the Indian Academy of Science, Bengaluru.

The researchers have concluded that it was an infertile female black palm squirrel.

Tracing the sequence of events, Oommen V. Oommen, a former chairman of the Kerala State Biodiversity Board, told IANS that it all began way back in 2008 when a group of farm labourers attached to the Central Tuber Crops Research Institute, here spotted a black coloured tiny creature while they were working at the farm.

In 2008, Oommen was a professor in the Zoology Department at the University of Kerala and he was surprised when he got a call from one of his former students who was working at the Institute where the squirrel was spotted.

“I along with one of my students went to their farm and was pleasantly surprised to see the creature which had the features of both a rat and a squirrel. I took possession of it and brought it to my department and put it in a cage. Then we got the formal permission from the Forest Department to keep the creature. We took pictures and sent it to rodent experts who came back to us stating that it’s not a rat. Then we got in touch with a squirrel expert in the UK, who confirmed that this was a squirrel,” said Oommen.

Oommen recalls that one day it was looking sick and he took it to the local veterinary hospital where the vets suggested giving it Vitamin D syrup and soon it was back in action.

“Later we decided to give this squirrel company with the help of zoo officials. They managed to get the normal variety of squirrel which was put next to this one in another cage. They then decided to further study the two different squirrels and following a genomic study after DNA tests were conducted they concluded that this had 98 per cent characteristics of the normal squirrel. Later more studies were conducted using bioinformatics methods to further cement their findings,” added Oommen.

Oommen, meanwhile, retired in 2010 and the squirrel died after two years.

But Oommen saw to it that it was stuffed and is now in their laboratory at the University.

“Time passed and in 2015, I felt that this should be taken forward and started collecting data. Then I got in touch with all my students who were with me when the ‘squirrel’ was located. After my tenure ended as the Chairman of the Board, I had more timeto spare. Last year, we completed our scientific studies and then we wanted to publish it and then it was a long wait and finally, it has been published and we all are hugely excited to see this in black and white,” added Oommen.