Palm squirrels could threaten dates

Muscat: For the first time, furry and cuddly palm squirrels which could threaten date crops were spotted in the open in the Sultanate. The sightings of these bushy tailed, striped rodents in SQU botanical gardens were published in the International Journal of Environmental Studies by the biology department’s Dr Erika Cuellar Soto, Biology and Prof Reginald Victor who have been studying invasive species in Oman for the last two decades.

Dr M Barry of the Department of Biology took photographs of this animal and its identity was confirmed as five-striped northern palm squirrel. The animal was first spotted by academic editor and birdwatcher Jamila J Hakam who alerted the sighting to the botany department. This study reports palm squirrels of the genus Funambulus as invasive in Oman for the first time.

These squirrels have been recorded in seven locations in northern Oman contributing to a total of 11 records. Seven records were of the Five-striped northern palm squirrel, Funambulus pennantii and species identification was uncertain for four records.

F pennantii was supposed to be the only species in UAE, but here evidence is shown for the presence of the three -striped Indian palm squirrel, Funambulus palmarum in Ras Al Khaimah. So, there is a possibility that this species may also occur in Oman.

These palm squirrels are feeding on the fruits of the jujube trees and the commercially valuable date fruits. There is a strong indication that these species could become serious pests on date palms. Their numbers are low at present in Oman, but they are well established in the adjacent UAE from where sustained invasion is more than likely.

At present, these animals can be sold through pet shops in Oman. These are liked by pet owners, who may release them into the natural environment for whatever reason or the animals by themselves can escape from captivity.

The invasion of Oman by the palm squirrels is in its infancy and strategies should be formulated now to eradicate/control them as a matter of priority.

Dr Cuellar Soto has established a database for monitoring the distribution and population trends of palm squirrels in Oman and would appreciate receiving reports of squirrel sightings from Oman preferably with photographic evidence. Her email is e.soto@squ.edu.om

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