Five-striped Palm Squirrel, Funambulus pennantii (Wroughton, 1905)--a new addition to the UAE's exotic fauna.
There are far fewer mammals and amongst these are well-established species, such as House Mouse (Mus musculus), Black Rat (Rattus norvegicus), and Brown Rat (Rattus rattus) which have probably been present for hundreds of years or more. R. rattus is known to have been present in the Middle East for at least 2,000 years. Feral populations of goats (Capra aegagrus hircus) have also become widely established in the Hajar Mountains as well as donkeys (Equus africanus asinus). Additionally, the Rock Hyrax (Procavia capensis), released during the 1990s, has maintained a small population up until today around an artificial water source on Jebel Hafit, Al Ain--Abu Dhabi Emirate (Drew C. & L. 2004), and is also a common introduced species on Sir Bani Yas island.
The Indian grey mongoose (Herpestes edwardsii) was recorded in the northern emirates in the 1980s and two animals that may have been this species were seen in Abu Dhabi in 1985 and 1988, (Hellyer & Aspinall: p. 313), although the lack of recent published records may indicate that the species has failed to establish a viable self-sustaining population.
Over the last seven years, since 2009, widespread and increasingly frequent sightings of Palm Squirrel (Funambulus sp.) have been reported. Initial reports suggested that the species present was the Indian Palm Squirrel (Wilson 2009, Anonymous 2011, Feulner 2013), also called Three-Striped Palm Squirrel (Funambulus palmarum - Linnaeus, 1766). However, a thorough review of all photographic material available suggests that the palm squirrel present in the UAE is most probably the Five-Striped Palm Squirrel (Funambulus pennantii--Wroughton, 1905). This identification has been confirmed by Dr. P.O. Nameer, a mammal specialist from the Centre of Wildlife Studies, Kerala Agricultural University- India, and the IUCN Red List status reviewer for Palm Squirrels.
As with the Indian Palm-Squirrel, the Five-Striped Palm Squirrel has 3 dorsal longitudinal yellow stripes across his dark brownish back, but differs from the later by also having a more or less distinct longitudinal yellow stripe bordering the dark mantle on the flanks (see pictures 1 to 3). All pictures of Palm Squirrel photographed in the UAE, including older records, made available to us on which the flanks of the animals are clearly visible allow the identification of the Five-Striped Palm Squirrel. There is thus far no confirmed evidence of the presence of the Three-Striped Palm Squirrel.
The 42 records collected to date (Table 1) of this mammal, spread throughout the country, suggest that the Five-striped Palm Squirrel (Funambulus pennantii) can now be added to the UAE's exotic, self-sustaining, mammal fauna.
No squirrels are native to the UAE, although a number of individuals of the Persian squirrel (Sciurus anomalus) survived from at least 1999-2003 in parks and gardens in Abu Dhabi, having originally been introduced for the pet trade (Aspinall et al. 2005). In the absence of any subsequent records, this species may not have succeeded in establishing a self-sustaining population.
The first published record of Palm squirrel for the UAE was posted on the citizen science and online social network iNaturalist on 30 January 2011 by Johnny Wilson, a visiting American naturalist, who related the sighting of a squirrel, which he photographed, in Al Hamraniyah farms on 17 August 2009 (http://www.inaturalist.org/observations/10691). A second record appeared in the April 2011 edition of the newsletter of the Dubai Natural History Group, The Gazelle, one having been photographed near a Fujairah housing complex (White Village) by local resident Joseph Viker (Anonymous 2011). Re-examinations of pictures of these first two records support their identification as Five-striped Squirrel, rather than Indian Palm Squirrel, as previously reported. Several other records from Fujairah are known. For around nine months from February 2014, a family of three was seen in the vicinity of the Fujairah Maternity Hospital by Minie van der Weg, while on 31st October 2015, one was seen by PH and Suzanne Hellyer in the gardens of the Fujairah Hilton Hotel. (Hellyer 2015).Two more were seen at the Fujairah Hilton, apparently breeding in a palm tree, on 30th April 2016 (Peter Arras, pers. comm.) and another on 7th October 2016 (Suzanne Hellyer, pers. comm.)
Other sightings in the Fujairah area, by JJ, include several records in May 2013 in palm plantations and inland farms of Rugheilat, a southern suburb of Fujairah City. Other records by JJ include animals on farms in the Kalba district (Emirate of Sharjah) in August-September 2013, and in Ayn Al Madhab Park --Fujairah on 23rd November 2013. Ahmed Al Ali recorded the calls of a squirrel he saw in Kalba on 29th December 2015.
Other sightings by JJ on the UAE's East Coast at Wamm, an area of Dibba, include 1 - 2 individuals, 4 April 2014, 04 September 2015 and 12 March 2016. One was seen on 8th April 2016 in a goat farm in the Wamm area during a birdwatching visit (Simon Lloyd pers. comm.) with another being seen the same month by Steve Taylor (pers. comm.).
At least two animals have also been recorded in Dibba-Bayah, the part of Dibba that belongs to the Sultanate of Oman, in the gardens of a dive centre, in September 2016 (Chris Chellapermal, pers. comm. 24th September 2016).
There are several published records from Dubai, the first of which was a 'pair' seen in Jumeirah 3, Dubai, by resident Michel de Martigny in his garden in early 2013, this being reported in the June 2013 issue of The Gazelle (Feulner 2013, Hellyer 2015).
Elsewhere in Dubai, Mike Barth photographed one individual in Dubai's Safa park on 29 January 2014 (UAEBirding forum), where JJ also observed the species on 13 March 2014, Mark Smiles recorded "1-2 pairs" there in 2015, (pers. comm.), and Huw Roberts also recorded them in early 2016 (pers. comm.).
In Nad Al Sheba 2, Howard Heaton reported in May 2016 that squirrels have been in his garden "for the past three years", i.e. since 2014. "Last year 2015, we counted at least five and believe they had bred... This year, I've counted three but there could be more... "(pers. comm.)
Palm squirrels have also been seen during 2015/2016 in the palm garden on The Palm Jumeirah (Justin Ede, Tommy Pedersen, pers. comm.).
In Abu Dhabi, a single animal was seen on the E16, south of Al Samha and around 2 km, from the Tulip Inn in 2013, the first on record for Abu Dhabi Emirate so far (Josh Smithson, pers. comm). 4 were seen on 29th April 2016 in the wooded garden by the Emirates Heritage Club compound on Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall breakwater (Oscar Campbell, pers. comm.).
Palm squirrels have also been reported from the farms in the Hamraniyyah area of inland Ra's al-Khaimah, 2 by Greg Askew and Alec Napier on 3rd December 2015, by JJ on several occasions (9 January, 19 February and 8 April 2016) and, also by Mark Smiles in January 2016, (pers. comm.).
In Sharjah, they have been described as "very common" in Sharjah National Park (Steve Taylor, pers. comm.), where Priscilla Van Handel estimated more than 50 individuals on 13 July 2016 (see pictures), and observed them eating dates and picnic left-over on the ground. They have also been seen in early 2016 near Sharjah University (John Johnston, pers. comm.)
Ahmed Al Ali, of the Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority, EPAA, has reported that they are present in the Dhaid area and Kaati Park, Al Hamriyah, Ajman (pers. comm.).
With the species now having been recorded from, at least, Fujairah, Kalba, Dibba, several areas in Dubai, Samha, Abu Dhabi city, Sharjah, Dhaid, Ajman and Hamraniyyah, including 'pairs' and young, it is evident that a widespread and probably self-sustaining population has already been established.
The number and distribution of 4 sub-species (F.p. pennantii, F.p. argentescens, F.p. chhattisgarhi and F.p gangutrianus) are still debated, and no studies have yet been undertaken to determine which one is present in UAE.
The Northern Palm Squirrel is native to India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Iran, but was introduced in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Nauru, Vanuatu and Australia, where it has since become a minor pest.
The closely-related species, the Indian palm squirrel, F. palmarum, is found naturally in southern India and Sri Lanka and was introduced in the late 19th century in Reunion, Mayotte, Comoro, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles and Australia, where it has become a minor pest.
Studies in Australia, where both species have successfully naturalised in Perth, although the Indian Palm Squirrel has been eradicated in Sydney, have suggested that these species have the potential to become a serious pest. A risk assessment by the Government of Queensland (Anonymous 2016) has concluded that F. palmarum and F. pennantii are serious pests of fruit crops in India and also eat birds' eggs.
The species can only be kept in Queensland as pets under license, in accordance with the Nature Conservation Act 1992, and are required to be made infertile. https://www.business.qld.gov.au/industry/agriculture/species/declared-pests/animals/indian-palm-squirrel
Australia's National Vertebrate Pests Committee classes palm squirrels as "an extreme threat", while the Non-Indigenous Animals Act defines them as a species of "high pest potential." http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/squirrels-on-sale-trendy-pets-or-just-a-little-nuts-20100731-110mj.html
Although the Northern Palm Squirrel clearly arrived in the United Arab Emirates as pets, subsequently either escaping or being deliberately released, they appear now to have become naturalised residents. In their home countries, this species is known to be very adaptable, using a large range of habitats from dry deciduous subtropical forest and scrublands to plantations, rural and urban areas.
Cute they may be, but they clearly have the potential to become pests here, as they have done in Australia. Given the apparent recent and fast spread of the species in the UAE, perhaps as a result of a succession of escapes or releases, and without clear regulations on their import, it is likely that the population will continue to grow.
Population monitoring and mapping of future sightings should be encouraged, as well as the study of their local ecology (diet, habitat preferences...) and population dynamic (breeding success and mortality, predation, competition with native species). The assessment of population status should be conducted in coordination with neighbouring countries (Oman in particular), since the species can easily move from one country to the other, as may be suggested from the single sighting in the Omani part of Dibba.
All future sightings can be communicated to Jacky Judas (JJ) who is currently compiling a database of UAE mammal records, and would be pleased to receive any other records of native or exotic mammal fauna.
The authors are grateful to the many UAE birdwatchers contributing to the Forum on the Emirates Birding website, www.uaebirding.com, whose names appear in the text above, for sharing information about their sightings, to Priscilla van Andel for photographs and to Dr P.O. Nameer for confirming the identification of the Five-Striped Palm Squirrel.
Anonymous 2011. Members' News. The Gazelle (DNHG), Vol.26(4):1
Anonymous 2016. Invasive animal risk assessment: Indian Palm Squirrel (Funambulus spp.). Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. Queensland Government. 18pp. https://www.daf.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/169656/IPA-Palm-Squirrel-Risk-Assessment.pdf - accessed 28th May 2016.
Aspinall S., P. Hellyer and C. Drew. 2005. Terrestrial Mammals, in The Emirates: A Natural History. Hellyer P. and S. Aspinall (Eds.) London: Trident Press Limited. p. 306-333.
Drew C. and L. Drew. 2004. The Mammals of Jebel Hafit. In Jebel Hafit, a natural history. (Aspinall S. and P. Hellyer Eds). Emirates Natural History Group, Abu Dhabi. p. 169-186.
Feulner G. 2013. "Chipmunks come to Dubai": Indian Palm squirrels. The Gazelle (DNHG), Vol.28(6):4
Hellyer P. 2015. Indian Palm squirrel--Naturalised or not? The Gazelle (DNHG), Vol.30(11):. p.1
Nameer, P.O. & Molur, S. 2008. Funambulus pennantii. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008: e.T8702A12926206. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T8702A12926206.en. Downloaded on 09 July 2016
Stuiksma H. and van Der Weg, M., 2014. More Indian Palm Squirrels in Fujairah. The Gazelle (DNHG), vol.29(2):4
Wilson J. 2009. Palm Squirrel (genus Funambulus). Observed by Johnnybirder--August 17, 2009. http://www.inaturalist.org/observations/10691. Accessed on 5 July 2016.
Wroughton R.C. 1905. "The common striped palm squirrel". Journal of the Bombay Natural history Society. 16:406-413
by Jacky Judas and Peter Hellyer
Emirates Wildlife Society - WWF
PO Box 25077,
Table 1: Distribution of records of the Five-Stripped Palm Squirrel (Funambulus pennantii) per year and Emirate Year of records Emirate 2009 2011 2013 2014 2015 2016 Total per Emirate Abu Dhabi 1 2 3 Ajman 1 1 Dubai 2 2 2 1 7 Fujairah 1 2 2 3 6 14 Ra's al-Khaimah 1 1 1 5 8 Sharjah 1 1 2 6 10 Total per year 1 1 6 6 9 20 43
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|Author:||Judas, Jacky; Hellyer, Peter|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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