According to locals, a mysterious beast lurks deep in the jungles of Borneo. It pounces on unsuspecting deer from the treetops, rips their bodies apart with its razor-sharp teeth and devours their organs. It might sounds like an urban ledgend, but these stories are based on a real animal: the “vampire squirrel” of Borneo.
“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,” explains a 2014 study published in Taprobanica, a journal dedicated to Asian biodiversity. “In villages close to the forest edge there were also accounts of the squirrel killing domestic chickens and eating the heart and liver only.”
If the image of a Bornean tufted ground squirrel viciously taking down a deer seems unlikely, it’s because it could very well be hearsay: all of the accounts of the squirrel’s bloodthirsty nature come from local folktales and have never been observed by the scientists who study it (its meal of choice so far seems to be canarium nuts, not animal flesh). However, the squirrels are elusive and have managed to avoid being caught on film until very recently, Rachel Feltman writes for The Washington Post. Researchers have snapped a handful of blurry photographs over the years, but the new video is so far one of the best glimpses at the squirrel in its natural habitat.
As Science Magazine’s Erik Stokstad reports, researchers set up 35 different motion-detecting video cameras in the forest underbrush in Indonesia’s Gunung Palung National Park. Intended to study the behavior of local animals, the scientists were surprised to see the tufted squirrel slink into view after just a few weeks of filming.
“I was sitting at the bar in Jakarta waiting to come home, looking through the pictures, and this popped up,” conservation biologist Andrew Marshall tells Stokstad.
Researchers may be skeptical of the squirrel’s alleged vampiric tastes, but it does have a particular claim to fame as literally having the fluffiest tail in the animal kingdom. The tufted squirrel’s poofy tail appears to be about 30 percent larger than its body volume, or about 130 percent of its body mass, Douglas Main writes for Newsweek. Because the squirrels are so mysterious, scientists still don’t know for sure why it has such a fluffy tail, although some suspect that it’s could be related to their mating habits or as a tactic to confuse predators.
In the meantime, scientists are trying to keep their lucky streak going and hope to learn more about the squirrels from their hidden cameras. But don’t expect to see them drain the blood from a deer.