Back in 2011, Mrs. WC live-trapped two white Red-backed Voles in our front yard. Red-backed Voles are ordinarily brown and red.
But these little guys, when we glimpsed them, were pure white.
We turned the little rodents over to a mammalogist. Even in the hand, he couldn’t tell if they were leucystic or albino. A leucystic animal is whiter than normal, either in patches or coverall. An albino animal has no pigment at all.
Eventually, it was determined they were albinos, less interesting than leucystic voles might have been. But one day the mammalogist noticed that one of the little captives was climbing on the roof of his cage. That was interesting, because no one had thought that voles could climb. They certainly don’t look like they are built for it.
One thing led to another, and now there’s a published paper one the climbing abilities of Red-backed Voles. Demot Cole has a nice report on Dr. Link Olson and his undergraduate student, Jon Nations. They were able to document that voles can indeed climb things like trees and, even more surprising, descend slowly.
WC’s and Mrs. WC’s tiny neighbors led to a serendipitous discovery of a nearly unknown ability in Alaska’s most common mammal. But for the discovery of these little white guys in our yard, maybe none of this would have happened. How cool is that?