The Big Cypress Fox Squirrel
By Allison Vincent
Most of us are familiar with the gregarious tree climber, the grey squirrel, but what do you know about its relative from southwest Florida, the big cypress fox squirrel (BCFS)?
Theirs is the classic story of the city mouse and country mouse, except of course, they’re squirrels. Grey’s a typical synanthrope, or a wild animal that lives near and benefits from human beings, whereas the BCFS is well, more of a hermit, except perhaps when you get them on the golf course.
One can easily tell a BCFS from a grey squirrel by color and size. BCFSs sport an array of colorful coats, commonly with a black jacket running from their head to back and tan sides extending over the belly. However, they can also show a rusty orange or more fully tan. Their most universal color feature tends to be their white ears and white around their nose. BCFSs also have a larger body size when compared to the grey squirrel, reaching up to 26 inches compared to the grey squirrel’s average of 19 inches and under.
CREW visitors are often lucky enough to see BCFSs throughout the CREW trails because these squirrels prefer a habitat mosaic, like the one preserved within the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, including pine flatwoods, cypress swamps, and hardwood hammocks. Prescribed burns greatly benefit the BCFS as they have greater foraging success with broad transitions between ecotones, or the area of transition between two plant communities. Their limited range extends from southwest of Lake Okeechobee and south of the Caloosahatchee River to south Big Cypress Basin.
Mating is thought to occur year-round but mostly around November – February and April – July. The best way to determine if a nest is active is to look for freshly stripped cypress bark on the trunk. BCFSs often build nests starting with a stand of Tillandsia air-plant gathering nesting material near the trunk. Another way to locate BCFSs is to keep an eye out for the remains of the following food items near cypress trees: fruit from pond apple, cabbage palm, cocoplum, wax myrtle, saw palmetto, hog plum and fungi; seed cones from south Florida slash pine and pond cypress.
The future of BCFSs is uncertain, as they face considerable threats to their population as development continues to increase in Southwest Florida. The suppression of fire due to land use changes, such as agriculture and development, causes the understory to grow and make habitat unsuitable. Additionally, changes in hydrological conditions, hunting, poaching, wildlife diseases (like the deadly squirrel poxvirus), predation, road mortality, and hurricanes also affect the species survival. However, projected human population growth in Southwest Florida ensures that habitat degradation, fragmentation, and loss will remain the biggest threat to the BCFS.
The long-term survival of the BCFS is dependent upon the public awareness and support of habitat management projects on private and public lands (like the CREW lands), where the use of prescribed fire, the control of invasive non-native plants/animals, and the maintenance of natural hydrologic conditions are necessary to retain habitat characteristics that benefit the BCFS.
The Big Cypress fox squirrel is protected as a state-threatened species by Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species Rule.
Where Can I See a Big Cypress Fox Squirrel? Although BCFS are rare in natural habitats, you may catch a glimpse of one at any of the four CREW trail systems, although they are most often photographed at CREW Flint Pen Strand. Big Cypress fox squirrels are typically found in their nests within approximately 1 hour of sunset and begin their daily activity approximately 1–2 hours after sunrise. Therefore, the best time to see one is typically between 9:00 am–4:00 pm.