It’s nearly impossible to walk through the the University of Michigan’s Diag without seeing a number of squirrels roaming around. While these furry little pals have come to be a central part of the identity of the University for many U-M students, the squirrels are facing an important issue: hair loss.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, LSA freshman Rosemary Frederiksen said she was shocked when she first saw a squirrel with prominent hair loss.
“I was really scared,” said Frederiksen. “I thought someone had shaved it.”
Ben Dantzer, U-M associate professor of psychology, ecology and evolutionary biology, told The Daily the squirrels are likely losing hair because of mange, a mammalian skin disease caused by mites or fungal infection, though there could be other factors at play.
“It’s hard to say (what is causing the hair loss) without doing some type of sampling on them,” Dantzer said. “Mange is caused by skin mites that burrow and cause damage to the skin, which eventually causes the hair to fall out. Squirrels can lose their hair due to fungal infections too.”
Dantzer said a possible mange or contagious fungal infection could spread among squirrels as they engage in social interactions and explained how students feeding squirrels can increase the chance of infections spreading among them.
“One thing that can increase contact (between squirrels) is feeding the squirrels (because it) increase(s) aggregations of them,” Dantzer said. “(It is the same idea as) going to a crowded party or social events in the era of COVID-19 or RSV, and there’s a high risk of catching those pathogens because you’re interacting with a lot of other individuals of your same species.”
Dantzer also said it is ill-advised to ever touch a squirrel, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states no one should ever touch a wild animal because of the risk of disease.
“There’s never really a good reason to touch squirrels,” Dantzer said.
In regards to the hairless Diag icons, Dantzer said there is not much anyone can do to help the squirrels because their hair loss is a part of nature.
“This is a natural part of the natural world, and animals get diseases,” Dantzer said. “This shouldn’t be a situation where we necessarily need to intervene.”
Many students also pointed how the campus squirrels appear to be incredibly overweight. Squirrels tend to gain weight for the winter in order to store energy when it is harder to find food. Frederiksen expressed her thoughts about how the squirrels are gaining so much weight.
“I think the reason some of them are getting so big is because they’re stealing (trash to eat) or people are giving them giant pieces of pizza and (other foods) like that,” Frederiksen said. “When I was in the voter registration line, (Ann Arbor volunteers) were handing out pizza and I saw a squirrel steal an entire piece.”
Despite the issues squirrels face, students still love interacting with them. Frederiksen helps run an account on Instagram, @michigan.squirrels, dedicated to sharing pictures of the campus squirrels. She said the campus squirrels add to the student experience.
“They’re very cute and they add happiness to our day,” Frederiksen said. “It’s kinda like seeing a dog.”
LSA freshman Catalina Boyle is also an admin on the @michigan.squirrels page. Boyle said the squirrels help create bonds between students.
“(Squirrels) add camaraderie between students,” Boyle said. “One time I came across a fellow student who was feeding the squirrels and they gave me some food to feed the squirrels too.”
The campus squirrels were unable to be reached for comment at this time.
Daily News Reporter Miles Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.