A new type of squirrel has been discovered for the first time living in the UK – the brunette.
Geneticists at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge are “excited” by reports of creatures which have a never-seen-before “black-red” coat.
The discovery came after members of the public reported sightings as part of the Black Squirrel project, a nationwide survey to track the spread of black squirrels across the country.
Helen McRobie, a senior lecturer in biomedical science, said: “I am quite excited about this and I would like to look into the genetic background of this dark fur.
“I don’t know where the word ‘brunette’ came from to describe them but it is quite good.
“I didn’t know we had them in Britain, but people are reporting sightings of black squirrels where there are lots of red squirrels, so it seems they are seeing a black-red, rather than a black one.”
Populations of black-reds have been recorded across continental Europe, but they have not previously been known in the UK.
The brunettes have the body shape of a red squirrel with its distinctive “tufty” ears and can have white markings on their stomachs.
Their discovery makes them the rarest of all the UK’s squirrel varieties, but researchers do not know how many there are.
Scientists believe brunettes are a subtype of Britain’s native red squirrel and the black squirrel is a subtype of the grey, which has spread across Britain since being introduced from North America in the 1870s.
There are estimated to be up to more than 2.5 million greys and 25,000 blacks in Britain.
Both dark subtypes have arisen through genetic mutations.
Sightings of brunettes were recorded in the Isle of Wight, Cumbria, Scotland and Merseyside.