Sure, everyone knows Bradley Cooper, or Will Smith, or Questlove. These are our city's great Philadelphians—those of us who create for the world, earning, in exchange, the admiration of non-Philadelphians everywhere. But, as one U Penn researcher recently found, there's a Philly celebrity that trumps all those names: the common squirrel.
Etienne Benson's paper, "The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States," was published in the Journal of American History this month. In it, the researcher traces the lineage of the eastern grey squirrel right back here to Philadelphia. So, world, you're welcome.
As squirrels go, most people think they've just simply been around forever, especially in cities. But, as Benson's research points out, squirrels had been essentially killed off within the borders of the country's largest metropolitan areas. In order for the furry little rodents to become the four-legged urban force they are today, someone had to reintroduce them back into our usual concrete habitat.
Which, of course, is what we did right here in Philly at Franklin Square. In 1847.
Benson's research indicates that Philadelphia is the site of the very first reintroduction of the eastern grey squirrel to a city habitat. Boston and New Haven followed is in the 1850s, followed by New York, Washington and Chicago in the 1870s. From there, the urban squirrel population exploded, leading to the situation we find ourselves in today. In fact, we as citydwellers have been raised by Squirrels, having historically used them to teach the concept of compassion to our children:
"He found several sources, from children's literature to writings of Ernest Thompson Seton, the cofounder of the Boy Scouts, that indicated that feeding squirrels was seen as a way to teach children how to be kind, both to human and nonhuman animals, and 'cure them of their tendency toward cruelty.'
Though people also fed other urban animals, such as pigeons, at the time, Benson suspected that squirrels might have occupied a unique position, perhaps in part because humans connect more easily with mammals. He wrote that 'squirrels readiness to trust humans and their ability to flourish in the heart of the city seemed to make them living proof of the rewards of extending charity and community beyond the bounds of humanity.'"
Up next for Benson is a look at how human-built structures have impacted wildlife populations in the area—an idea he got looking off his back porch at a group of—you guessed it—squirrels.
So the next time you see a bushy-tailed rodent bounding around Rittenhouse or crawling along the powerlines in front of your house, take note. After all, that little guy has been here a lot longer than any of us.