Originally Published: January 20, 2009 9:59 p.m.
Kaibab National Forest officials are honoring some unique furry friends today because it is National Squirrel Appreciation Day.
The Kaibab Plateau in northern Arizona is the only place in the world where the Kaibab squirrel lives in the wild.
In an effort to recognize the Kaibab squirrel nationally, the National Park Service designated portions of the North Kaibab Ranger District and Grand Canyon National Park as a National Natural Landmark.
"The designation acknowledges the importance of this species as an endemic and therefore provides conservation support from one of our sister agencies - the National Park Service," said Angela Gatto, North Kaibab Ranger District wildlife biologist.
As soon as the snow melts, officials are erecting a large bronze plaque the National Natural Landmark program donated to the visitor center in recognition of the squirrel.
The area designated as a landmark covers nearly 200,000 acres of ponderosa pine habitat that the Kaibab squirrel depends on for survival, according to the National Natural Landmarks Program website,
Dr. Joseph D. Hall, who conducted the evaluation on the squirrel and its habitat, stated that the Kaibab squirrel is, in a local way, as significant a species as the finches Charles Darwin studied on the Galapagos Islands.
Like the finches of the Galapagos, natural geographic boundaries including the Grand Canyon have restricted the Kaibab squirrel's movement and allowed it to evolve into the species seen today.
Not to be confused with the similar-looking Abert's squirrel, which roams the two southern districts of the Kaibab National Forest as well as many other places in the western United States, the Kaibab squirrel has distinctive features born of its evolution on the Kaibab Plateau.
"The main difference is coloration. The Kaibab (squirrel) has a white fluffy tail and a darker body," Gatto said.
The Kaibab squirrel is now a subspecies of the Abert's squirrel, whereas in the past scientists thought it was a distinct species. Gatto said the visible differences between the two squirrels are apparent, even to the untrained eye.
The area around Jacob Lake, near the Kaibab Plateau Visitor Center, is a great place to see the squirrels going about their daily routine of collecting pine cones and making nests, officials said.
Because Kaibab squirrels do not create food caches like the red squirrel, visitors can see the animals throughout the year.
During the late winter and early spring, especially February and March, onlookers can catch a glimpse of the squirrels' mating ritual, which involves the males racing through the treetops in pursuit of the females, Gatto said.