The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Beware! A vampire squirrel lurks deep in the jungles of Borneo.

Pretty squirrel…unless you’re a deer. (Courtesy of Rona Dennis)

There is a squirrel in the jungles of Borneo that drops from branches onto the backs of unsuspecting deer, rips through their jugular veins, waits for them to bleed out, then feasts upon their stomachs, hearts and livers.

Don’t believe me? Perhaps you will believe science. The tufted ground squirrel (Rheithrosciurus macrotis)  was the subject of a paper in the June 2014 issue of Taprobanica, a journal devoted to Asian flora and fauna. While most of the paper focused on the squirrel’s extraordinarily large tail (it resembles those bearskin hats that Buckingham Palace guards wear), the authors explored some of the folklore associated with the animal. In interviews, native hunters remarked upon the squirrel’s fierce  nature and its taste for the innards of small deer known as muntjac.

“Dayak hunters sometimes find these disemboweled deer in the forest, none of the flesh eaten, which to them is a clear sign of a squirrel kill,” they wrote. “In villages close to the forest edge there were also accounts of the squirrel killing domestic chickens and eating the heart and liver only.”

Hey, can we stick some of these squirrels in Rock Creek Park to deal with the white-tail deer population explosion!

The paper’s lead author was Emily Mae Meijaard, who was 15 when she wrote it, assisted by her parents Erik Meijaard and Rona Anne Dennis. The family lives in Jakarta, Indonesia, where Erik is a conservation scientist and consultant and Rona is a geographer and sustainability specialist. Emily is a high school student who is fascinated by animals. “Growing up in Indonesia and frequently visiting my grandparents in Scotland I have a seen many a squirrel, but nothing quite like this one,” Emily wrote me in an e-mail.

There are 34 species of squirrel in Borneo, an island between the South China Sea and the Java Sea. The tufted ground squirrel’s voluminous tail is one of the largest among all mammals, relative to its body size. The tail is 130 percent the size of the body. (In comparison, a red squirrel — found in Scotland — has a tail volume of 90 percent.) Emily said no one is quite sure why the tail is so big. The weather doesn’t get that cold where the squirrel lives, so it probably isn’t for warmth. It probably doesn’t help it gain balance in the trees (it spends most of its time on the ground). Emily wonders if the tail is used as an anti-predator mechanism, a way of confusing animals that want to eat it. The fluffy nimbus certainly makes it look bigger.

The tufted ground squirrel hasn’t been studied much. There aren’t even many good photographs, just blurry snapshots captured by trail cameras. If The Post would fund it — the way the New York Herald sent Stanley to Africa to find Livingston — I would lead an expedition deep into the jungle to find the vampire squirrel and hopefully capture the geysers of blood on film.

Still, even without video of the deer-killer in action, Emily’s paper got enormous attention.

“It generated a wave of spin-off stories in newspapers and other scientific journals, including the Scientific American, the Independent, Der Spiegel and many others, and in languages varying from English to Mandarin, Italian, Hungarian and French,” Erik wrote in an e-mail. “We guess it was that combination of alleged deer killing, a ridiculously large tail, a young girl writing and exploring the story, and the general mystical aura of Borneo.”

But, really: murderous squirrels dropping from trees and disemboweling deer? Are those Borneo hunters laughing at us  gullible westerners?

Erik said he might once have thought that, except for something that happened in 2008. For years, native hunters had been telling him that mouse-deer — a species of primitive deer that have fangs (yes, fangs; Borneo is a weird place) —  hide under water and hold their breath when chased by hunting dogs.

“That sounded way unlikely until we happened to film a deer doing exactly that, staying under water for several minutes at the time,” he wrote. “So, for now I give the hunters the benefit of the doubt.”

Power to the squirrels

Compared to those tufted ground squirrels, our gray squirrels sound positively boring. But they are not entirely innocent. Don’t we sometimes hear about how they’re a threat to the power grid? I decided to ask Pepco.

“Squirrels and other wildlife can cause electric service interruptions on our system,” wrote a Pepco spokesman in an e-mail. “This is typical to utilities throughout the country.  The majority of outages caused by wildlife affect a limited number of Pepco customers when they occur and generally involve a blown fuse.   We regularly install animal guards on our equipment to prevent these types of outages.”

In 2014 Pepco logged 645 “outage events” caused by squirrels, affecting 4.6 percent of Pepco’s customers. That’s more than twice as many as the second most common cause: birds (256 events). Snakes accounted for 11 events. And “Other” — mostly raccoons, but also rats, beavers and chipmunks — caused 56 events.