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06 December 2023

Escaped squirrels may become a pest, says study

By Wam

An imported species of squirrel, first recorded in the wild in the UAE in 2009, is now spreading widely across the country, according to a study published in the latest issue of the local natural history journal, Tribulus.

The species is the Five-striped Palm Squirrel, which is native to South Asia and Iran. First recorded in the Hamraniyah area of Ras al-Khaimah in 2009, it appears to have spread quickly over the last few years. It has now been reported from all of the emirates except Umm Al Qaiwain, with sightings in several areas of Dubai, Abu Dhabi city, Samha, Sharjah, Ajman, and Dhaid, as well as Kalba, Fujairah and Dibba. They have also been seen in the Omani part of Dibba. Several family groups have been seen in a number of locations, suggesting that the squirrels are breeding successfully, while a peak count of around 50 individuals were seen in Sharjah National Park in July last year, the study says.

The authors of the study are Jacky Judas, Manager and Scientific Adviser for Terrestrial Biodiversity at the Emirates Wildlife Society – Worldwide Fund for Nature, EWS-WWF, and Peter Hellyer, a historian and author who has been studying aspects of the UAE's wildlife for over 30 years.

The Five-striped Palm Squirrel has been introduced to several countries outside its natural range, including Australia, where it has become established in Perth. Australia's National Vertebrate Pests Committee has classed it as posing "an extreme threat" as a potential pest species, the study reports. In India, its home territory, the species is a serious pest of fruit crops and also eats birds' eggs.

The palm squirrels were probably first imported into the UAE as pets, then escaping or have been deliberately released.

"Cute they may be, but they clearly have the potential to become pests here, as they have done in Australia," Judas and Hellyer state. "Given the apparent recent and fast spread of the species in the UAE, it is likely that the population will continue to grow."

They recommend a continuing monitoring of the squirrel population, to record numbers, distribution and their diet.

The authors collected their data from records provided by active local birdwatchers through the UAE Birding website, www.uaebirding.com.

"This provides only an indication of the rapid spread of the squirrels," they say. "It is likely that they are much more numerous and present in many other areas."

Judas is currently working to establish an open-access database of sightings of mammal species in the Emirates, both native and introduced.

"The fact that this introduced squirrel species has established a self-sustaining population over a period of only a few years highlights the need to systematically record all observations of alien non-native species and to maintain them in a centralised national biodiversity database," he says. "When an alien, non-native species has spread and has started to do damage, it can be extremely difficult and costly to remove it."

Tribulus, an English language journal covering the history, natural history and environment of the UAE, has been published for the Emirates Natural History Group since 1991.