Glimpse of Nature

Pictured above from left to right, top to bottom: Mallard Duck, Chipmunk, “Black” Squirrel, Red Squirrel, and a waterfall.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

– John Muir, 1877

At Penn State Altoona’s (PSUA) campus, visitors can encounter many natural features that makes nature at our campus a memorable treat. I sat down with professor of Biology and Environmental Studies, Carolyn G. Mahan, PhD. She presented comments about the thriving natural setting and the species that inhabit campus. Perhaps, the most unusual-looking animal on campus is the black squirrel.

           Although named “black squirrel”, the black squirrel is just another common gray squirrel in a melanistic form. Black squirrels have a form of a gene that causes them to have the characteristic of black fur.  The black fur color is dominant to gray fur but the black color is still relatively uncommon in gray squirrel populations as a whole. Black squirrels are not common everywhere due to the unfortunate reason that they more visible to predators. Katie Smeltzer, a senior from York, PA studying nursing, stated

“When I showed my family a picture of them (black squirrels), they thought I photoshopped it. They are a unique addition to campus”.

          Dr. Mahan stated that some biologists theorize that their black fur makes them easier prey in the wintertime as they cannot blend in with the snow.

           So, how can such an uncommon color variant survive on PSUA’s campus?  PSUA is a safer environment for them, compared to forest and wild habitats. Here, they have constant food sources, especially since squirrels will eat a wide variety of food. Black squirrels have continued to appear on campus because of these safer conditions. Cooper Wills, a senior studying political science from Mechanicsburg, Pa stated that

“As a senior, I remember when this campus had white ducks.The black squirrels remind me of the white ducks. On the surface, there is nothing special about them compared to the other ducks and squirrels. But when you  see one, you still stop and look at it.” Willis continued, “Most of the time, you will say something like ‘look at the black squirrel’. It is cool to see that diversity as it reminds me of the white ducks that we miss.”

           Another nature favorite of the campus is the ducks, as Wills stated. The most common to our pond is the Mallard duck, with occasional wild species visiting during their migration trips. Dr. Mahan described that ducks are actually less common now than just a mere 10 years ago. She attributes this to campus changing the policy on feeding ducks. She clarifies that this a good improvement because duck waste pollutes the pond, and with fewer ducks there is therefore less pollution due to duck waste. Species of ducks that have been to the pond during migration season include the bufflehead, ring-necked duck and the long-tailed duck. An occasional red tailed hawk can be spotted on campus, as they occasionally eat squirrels and even ducks.

           Dr. Mahan also passed along information that was just released in October 2018. The campus’ Spring Run stream was just listed as a Class A Trout stream by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. This ranking reflects the high water quality of the stream. If visitors look close enough, they may see wild brown trout swimming.

           Although the stream and nature around campus is fairly healthy, the pond has poor water quality. Look out for the next article about the pond’s health through a study done by Dr. Mahan’s students released in 2010.


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