Most of us fall into distinct camps when it comes to squirrels: You might be smitten with their inquisitive, seemingly fearless nature and adorable appearance and enjoy nothing more than taking Instagram close-ups of the furry-tailed breakfast cereal thieves scampering around the backyard. Either that or you hate the things with a fiery passion as they’ve ruined your garden, emptied your bird feeders or made you swerve off the road and bang up your car. Maybe they’ve even caused significant damage to your home by nesting in your attic.
Given the ubiquitous presence of these frisky rodents, their relationship with humans is, well, close. We’ve all seen some elderly gentleman in a park hand-feeding — and maybe talking to — them. We’ve also all seen someone scream bloody murder because they’ve annihilated the backyard veggie patch.
Squirrels also have a knack at interrupting our lives whether you realize it or not. And we’re not just talking about having to hit the brakes as one darts out in the middle of the street. Below, we’ve rounding up five notable instances of squirrels wreaking havoc on human civilization, and some are just, well, nuts. So the next time that the stock market goes berserk or the lights go out, you just might be able to blame a squirrel.
Over the years, trading on the Nasdaq has been halted numerous times by technical hiccups including a worrisome and particularly disruptive three-hour shutdown in August 2013 and a much shorter delay of six minutes just two weeks later. Of course we can't forget the chaos that erupted in May 2012 after a “technical delay” struck America’s second-largest stock market during the Facebook IPO.
And then we have the issue of cute, bushy-tailed rodents who seem to delight in full-blown financial freak-outs. Nasdaq has been brought to its knees not once but twice by squirrel-borne delays, in 1987 for 82 minutes, and 1994 for 34 minutes. Both delays, the former of which followed a stock market crash and the latter of which followed a string of embarrassing outages, were the result of a bit of good, old-fashioned cable nibbling near the company’s main trading computers in Trumbull, Conn. While some speculated that the August 2013 glitch was yet again of pesky squirrel origin (a “black squirrel event”), it was concluded that small mammalian tightrope walkers had nothing to do with it.
Nuclear missile silo invaders
While squirrel-related stock market shutdowns are no doubt annoying — and maybe just a touch amusing — when rodents start to interfere with underground nuclear missile silos, well, that’s on a whole other level of concern. As recently reported by Smithsonian magazine, personnel at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana have been beset by a small army of Richardson’s ground squirrels that are in the habit of tunneling under the motion detector-equipped perimeter fence guarding the silos that house the base’s 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles. Each time that one of the squirrels decides to breach the perimeter fence, it triggers an alarm. According to Gary Witmer, a rodent-specializing research biologist with the National Wildlife Research Center who was called in to assist, the burrowing squirrels are responsible for setting off thousands of false alarms each year and also have started to gnaw on cables, undermine road beds, and compromise the overall physical infrastructure of the facility. It’s also worth noting that Malmstrom's missile silos are spread out over an area of 23,000 square miles — this makes for a huge headache each time there’s a squirrel-borne security breach.
After a bit of trial and error (steel fabric and metal chain-link mesh didn’t effectively keep the determined critters at bay), Witmer and his team created a squirrel-proof barrier design in the form of underground metal sheets combined with aboveground sheets of slippery polycarbonate plastic. The barriers will be tested on a missile silo mockup at the base, and if that proves successful, they’ll be installed on the real deal.
Overenthusiastic tennis spectators
Animals of both the domesticated and wild variety — pine martens, bats, cats, dogs, you name it — have long excelled at halting professional sporting events. Usually, these interruptions involve comical chases (time to cue up the “Benny Hill Show” theme), amused announcer banter and, depending on the animal involved, terrified athletes. As for squirrels, they have historically demonstrated decidedly highbrow taste in which type of sporting match that they decide to disrupt. Squirrels, at least the ones living in Queens, like themselves some tennis.
U.S. Open matches at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center have been unceremoniously interrupted a handful of times by squirrels including a rather harrowing incident in 2012 when France’s Julien Benneteau, during a first-round match with Belgium’s Olivier Rochus, started to pelt an offending — and rather frantic — rodent with tennis balls before it eventually exited the court through a chain-link fence. The Scottish announcer during the match took a decidedly pro-squirrel stance, calling Benneteau’s actions “nasty” while referring to the nut-collecting interloper/tennis enthusiast as a “poor little thing.” (There goes Benneteau’s chance of stripping naked for PETA). More recently, a confused/curious squirrel dashed out on to the court during a U.S. Open 2013 day one match between Germany’s Sabine Lisicki and Vera Dushevina of Russia. While it is unknown whether the same squirrel was involved in both incidents, if the same thing happens at next year’s U.S. Open and the squirrel is wearing a pink Lacoste polo short this time around, the answer should be more than clear.
An abridged list of common things that can result in the lights going out temporarily: Downed trees and tree limbs, lightning strikes, ice, snow, high winds, car accidents, flooding and, in Norway, rampaging trolls. Squirrels, and a few other critters like large birds, raccoons and even snakes, can be factored into this list. And the extent of squirrel-related damage to power lines being greater than you might suspect.
Just ask New York Times columnist Jon Mooallem, who, after learning about an incident in which a squirrel, that while doing squirrel-y things, cut off electricity to 700 customers in Tampa, spent the summer of 2013 tracking reports of squirrel-related outages with Google news alerts. “Power outages caused by squirrels are a new hobby of mine, a persnickety and constantly updating data set that hums along behind the rest of my life the way baseball statistics or celebrity-birthing news might for other people,” writes Mooallem. Beginning on Memorial Day spanning through the end of August, Mooallem recorded 50 power outages caused by squirrels (“P.O.C.B.S.”) in 24 states, ranging from Mason City, Iowa, to Rock City, S.C., to Portland, Ore., and everywhere in between.
In his piece, Mooallem goes into further detail on the disruptive and potentially dangerous nature of these P.O.C.B.S. while also seeking out an answer as to why from squirrel biologist John L. Koprowski of the University of Arizona, Tucson. Basically, squirrel-related power outages are the result of a “cascade of coincidences” that includes basic squirrel behavior: teething, burrowing, stockpiling, leaping and sunbathing.
Concludes Mooallem: “I’ve come to see each P.O.C.B.S. as a reminder of our relative size on the landscape, recalibrating our identity as one set of creatures in a larger ecology. We are a marvelously successful set of creatures, though. A power outage caused by a squirrel feels so surprising only because we’ve come to see our electrical grid — all these wires with which, little by little, we’ve battened down the continent — as a constant. Electricity everywhere, at the flick of a switch, seems like the natural order, while the actual natural order — the squirrel programmed by evolution to gnaw and eat acorns and bask and leap and scamper — winds up feeling like a preposterous, alien glitch in that system. It’s a pretty stunning reversal, if you can clear the right kind of space to reflect on it, and fortunately power outages caused by squirrels do that for you by shutting off your TV and Internet.”
Finally, an entry on this list that’s a bit different from the rest, as the offending squirrel in question isn’t guilty of wreaking havoc on the built environment. Rather, he was just going about his normal business in the one place you’d expect to find an adorable, bushy-tailed acorn collector: a campground. The thing is, said squirrel was infected with the Black Death. (At right is a scanning electron micrograph of Yersinia pestis, which causes bubonic plague, on the spines of a flea.)
During the summer of 2013, three campgrounds in Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains about 50 miles northeast of Los Angeles were shuttered for several days after a flea-covered squirrel trapped in one of the parks tested positive for the bubonic plague (yes, it still exists). While the incident garnered a fair amount of media attention and freaked a bunch of people out, cases of the plague among animals in the United States, particularly in the Southwest and mostly involving rodents bitten by fleas carrying the disease, aren’t totally uncommon. Weirdly, New Mexico usually accounts for around half of the reported cases of the plague in the U.S. including cats, dogs and, yep, the occasional human.
As reported by The Verge, in recent decades an average of seven reported human cases of the plague are reported each year. Fortunately, much unlike the gruesome situation in 14th century Europe that claimed an estimated 25 million lives, the disease is now treatable with antibiotics provided that it’s detected in the early stages … you know, before, you develop egg-sized buboes and gangrene sets in.
Related stories on MNN:
- Meet Sneezy, the squirrel that wears tiny hats
- Why Germans are stumped by the word 'squirrel'
- 9 of the smartest animals on Earth: Squirrels