The mystery of Pete the purple squirrel


Late last year (on December 22nd) the British newspapers told the story of Pete, a purple-coated Grey squirrel Sciurus carolinensis photographed in the grounds of Meoncross School, Stubbington (Hampshire, UK). Why a Grey squirrel should have a purple coat is, of course, the big mystery.

One suggestion is that Pete might have found purple ink cartridges in the bin and somehow groomed the ink into his fur. I suppose that's possible, but it sounds pretty unlikely. Local naturalist Chris Packham has been quoted as suggesting that Pete fell into a bucket 'containing a weak colour solution'. Purple-coated mammals have been seen before, but admittedly in zoos: I'm thinking of the captive Polar bear Ursus maritimus at Mendoza Zoo that was turned deep purple by a treatment for dermatitis. We also know that there are algae that sometimes turn fur green, but - with the exception of sloths - this has (to my knowledge) only been reported in captive animals (polar bears again). Anyway, these algae - obviously - make the animals green, not purple.


I have one last idea: this is that Pete was deliberately dyed by someone for use in a study. In order to keep track of animals (usually seabirds) in the field, biologists sometimes dye the animal, often in purples or other unnatural-looking colours. These dyes are temporary and harmless. I've never heard of anyone needing to dye a Grey squirrel (if someone was trying to keep track of one, you'd think that they'd apply a radio-tag or microchip), and another flaw with this idea is that - given the massive media coverage - you'd expect the biologist concerned to come forward immediately.

Any better ideas? As you might have guessed, I'm mostly running this (by now) old story because it gives me the chance to use some amusing pictures.

Unusually coloured Grey squirrels have been covered on Tet Zoo before: see The mysterious tree-creature revealed. And for other squirreley articles see Biggest squirrel ever and (from ver 1) That's no mystery carnivore.

Coming next: boobies, boobies, boobies!


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I guess there is always the possibility that someone dyed the squirrel to study the public's/media's reactions. In that case coming forward would end the study prematurely.

By Robert Jase (not verified) on 03 Jan 2009 #permalink

Going back to dyes and medicine sheep-dip is often purple, he could have fallen in that if it's a rural area (or cloase enough). A vet might have dosed him at an animl shelter for manger or soemthing similar. Someone might just have flung some dye over him in a garden even.

It could be of the Goth subspecies, Sciurus carolinensis goticus. They show some bizarre pelage colors. Although usually there are dark markings around the eyes.

I grew up on Staten Island, where all the S. carolinensis were gray. Then I spent a year in Princeton, only 50 km away, and I was surprised to see that maybe 10% of the squirrels were melanistic: as I recall, very dark brown rather than black-cat black. Could this be some even weirder variation?

My guess would involve grape jello powder or gentian violet.

It's about the right colour distribution in the fur, it's harmless, and either (though more probably the jello) could be found in a location where I squirrel would go rooting about.

So, dry grape jello powder in fur from dumpster diving, then rain; *poof*, purple squirrel.

regardless, we should all be relieved that he does not seem to eat people.

Except Jelly (aka Jell-o) doesn't come in powder form in the UK. There are a few shops that carry powdered cool-aid I suppose which might have the same effect.

Purple ink catridges are presumably unlikely, don't colour catridges only come in cyan, yellow and pink?

It's a very even dye so sheep dip could be an answer, or an elaborate hoax, are there any other pics of him taken by random people who haves spotted him ?

The obvious: The squirrel was bag-man for a bank heist. Got zapped when he opened up the bag and the dye-bomb went off.

Not terribly unexpected behavior, for a squirrel.

I hope this does not make me sound like a hick, but when we were kids we would toss smoke bombs (the colored ones with fusses you get around the 4th of July) into the chicken pen. I now realize that was not very nice, but it did dye the chickens the color of the smoke bomb for a short amount of time (like a week or so)......maybe some kids got a hold of poor Pete.

Bah, just adjust color in Photoshop a little and Pete will turn red, blue or green.

A brightly colored animal on the grounds of slightly pricey private school?

If it's anything like the school I went too, we're looking at a practical joke.

By PennyBright (not verified) on 03 Jan 2009 #permalink

First, Jello is not a jelly, it is a brand of gelatin; usually sold freeze dried in the U.S. Jello is also coarse in texture and dissolves readily in water. From the looks of things Pete was covered by a fine purple powder, much like talcum or something similar. Also note that in the second picture below the first it would appear that Pete's natural fur color is starting to show through again as the powder wears off. The fact it's his face that's turning brown first fits with the squirrel's way of cleaning itself.

In the UK what you call Jell-o we call Jelly. Jelly doesn't come in freeze dried flakes.

Yeah some kind of powder could be it.

I saw a squirrel wait for a traffic light at 77 Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, MA to change before it crossed the street, after the cars had already been stopped for several seconds. Somehow the students waiting there were also not alert enough to cross before the light changed, either, but IIRC they did move a split second before the squirrel.

Purple would have a slight survival advantage, especially when it isn't uniform. Squirrels sure are getting weird.

"regardless, we should all be relieved that he does not seem to eat people."

I liked your joke, brooks.

Can't a squirrel just express himself without being judged by society? Sheesh! Like, this is totally what he's rebelling against in the first place, total stifling squirrel conformity. Shine on, you crazy purple squirrel! You just watch, I bet he comes home with a piercing.

Are there studies of squirrel evolution in cities? Or pigeons, for that matter. What makes a cliff dwelling sky-rats more competitive in a city? If Jared Diamond is correct about the evolution of dogs as scavengers self-domesticating, why aren't there similarly self-domesticating squirrels?


Looks to me that that it has been in a bath of dye of some sort, top half of its head with ears, eyes and the nose free above the surface. They swim, don`t they?

By Erik Knatterud (not verified) on 04 Jan 2009 #permalink

i told bill not to drink the purple kool-aid at our last heavens gate meeting

By christopher guerra (not verified) on 04 Jan 2009 #permalink

It's an Indigo squirrel for those Indigo children to feed at the park.

By Pat McMahon (not verified) on 04 Jan 2009 #permalink

People frequently find squirrel pups and raise them. Perhaps that was the case with this squirrel, and the squirrel was dyed before release to identify this hand raised squirrel from other wild squirrels. Just a guess.

Maybe the squirrels had an election and they dye all voters purple after they vote to prevent them from voting twice. (He was the only one who voted; Squirrels are even more apathetic than people.)

Maybe Prince had a pet squirrel and it got lost. C

christopher guerra probably has it right. Sugarless Koolaid is the hair and body parts dye of choice for the punk and costume crowd. (redundant?) The pink color is the worst, it will permanently dye nylon carpet and is immune to hypochlorite bleach.

By Blind Squirrel FCD (not verified) on 08 Jan 2009 #permalink

You sometimes get seeds for farming dyed bright colours for quick identification. Maybe this squirrel managed to get into a bag of these? It would have had to eat a lot over a very long time for it to affect fur colour I suspect.

We have a pinkish purple squirrel hanging around our house. He was around last year and I thought he must have fallen in paint or something. I couldn't get close enough to tell for sure what was causing the color. Then he is here again this year (I didn't notice him this winter and I feed them) and he almost jumped right on top of my head when I snuck up on him as he sat on our pool fence. He is definitely pinkish purple with an almost peach colored cast and it's mostly on his tail and both sides. And it's not paint!!! it's his fur color. I saw him too close up to be mistaken.

Mabye he ate some dye or a medicen that turned his fur purple. And could have the people that were curious about him just catch him and test him?