6 min read

These Huge, Multicolored Squirrels Don't Even Look Real

They're found this way in the wild!

The animal looked too big to be a squirrel — more like a primate. This is what squirrel expert John Koprowski thought when he first laid eyes on a Malabar giant squirrel, also known as an Indian giant squirrel, when he visited India in 2006.

Of course, the Malabar giant squirrel is, indeed, a squirrel, although it looks very different from the squirrels we’re used to seeing in North America. For one, Malabar giant squirrels are huge — they’re two times the size of an eastern grey squirrel, with bodies that span 36 inches from head to tail.

Malabar giant squirrel on tree branch
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“These are giants!” Koprowski, professor and associate director at the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona, told The Dodo.

It’s not only the Malabar giant squirrel’s size that’s impressive — the color of his fur is also unique. It can be black, brown and orange, as well as maroon and purple. The maroon and purple shades, in particular, are unusual in mammals, Koprowski explained.

Malabar giant squirrel eating in the forest
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But this extraordinary coloration isn’t just for show — it actually helps these giant squirrels survive in the wild, according to Koprowski.

“In the shaded understory of a dense forest, the patchy colors and dark hues are a great adaptation to avoiding detection,” Koprowski said. “But when you see these in the sunlight, they show their 'true colors' and beautiful pelage [fur].”

Malabar squirrel on a tree
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Malabar giant squirrels also have large furry ear tufts and robust forelimbs, which add to their distinctive appearance. They live primarily in the forest canopy, leaping from tree to tree to find food, rarely touching the ground.

Malabar giant squirrel eating fruit
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Unfortunately, most people aren’t going to see these squirrels just by looking out the window. To observe them in the wild, you have to travel to eastern or southern India and trek into the forest — but even then, it can be difficult to spot them.

Malabar squirrel on tree trunk
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“They are pretty shy,” Pizza Ka Yee Chow, squirrel expert and research fellow at Hokkaido University, told The Dodo. “One of my friends who lives in India shared with me that the best way to see these giant squirrels is to climb up on a tree, stay very quiet and wait for them to emerge from their [nest].”

Malabar giant squirrel on tree branch
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At the moment, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the Malabar giant squirrel as a species of “least concern,” which means they’re not currently threatened by extinction. However, their populations are still declining, and these giant squirrels could be in danger in the future if they're not protected.

Malabar giant squirrel climbing tree
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“The real threat is the slow loss and degradation of forested habitats as humans move in and as climate change impacts higher elevation areas,” Koprowski said. “The good news is that they have a wide distribution and seem to tolerate human presence and even some modest level of low-density housing.”

Hopefully, the Malabar giant squirrel will be around for a long, long time.

Malabar giant squirrel eating fruit
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“They’re part of a group of squirrels that is pretty ancient,” Koprowski said. “They’re a unique evolutionary group that’s been here a long time, which is a good thing.”

One thing’s for sure: The world’s a more magical place with these squirrels in it.