Feb. 10, 2012 at 6:59 PM ET
We may never know what made the purple squirrel of Jersey Shore purple, but experts don't doubt that it really was a squirrel of a different color.
"It's not typical, but it's not impossible," said Harold Cole, a warden with the Pennsylvania Game Commission who investigated the case.
Percy Emert, a resident of the town in central Pennsylvania, said he and his wife caught the squirrel on Sunday in a trap, using peanuts as bait.
"At first I thought somebody around here was playing tricks," he said. The family took pictures of the animal in its cage and posted them on Facebook. Then, on Tuesday, they set the squirrel free.
The pigment really hit the fan once the online pictures were featured on AccuWeather's website. Now the Purple Squirrel has its own Facebook page with more than 3,800 fans. It didn't hurt that a "purple squirrel" also happens to be engineering slang for an impossibly ideal job candidate.
The only problem is that beyond the Emerts and their friends, no one actually saw the squirrel or was able to study it. The family did hang onto some of the fur that was left behind in the cage, along with some tail trimmings — and they gave those samples to Cole when he was called to the scene.
Cole said the hairs could be passed along to a lab for an analysis, but the game commission itself won't be pursuing the case any further. As purple as it is, the squirrel doesn't appear to pose a hazard or be suffering from disease.
"The squirrel looks healthy in the picture there, except that he doesn't want to be in that cage," he said.
Cole also doesn't think the Emerts dyed the critter, which would be illegal. But he wouldn't rule out the possibility that someone else may have colored the squirrel previously to keep track of it. In fact, there are several possible explanations for the purpleness.
One is that the squirrel picked up a purple stain in the course of its perambulations. In 2008, a purple squirrel was sighted near a school in England, and experts suggested that the animal got into some discarded containers of printer ink toner. AccuWeather meteorologist Henry Margusity joked that the Pennsylvania squirrel "could have been looking for somewhere warm and fallen into a Port-a-Potty or something similar."
Cole said it's also possible that the squirrel ingested something that lent a purple tinge to the fur — maybe the local pokeberries, maybe an industrial compound, maybe even a food containing purple pigment. The game warden pointed to the example of flamingos, which get their pink or orange color from the food they eat.
Unless the purple squirrel makes a reappearance and gets a scientific going-over, the case will remain up for debate, much like the fabled Minnesota sighting of 1997. In the meantime, Harold Cole and Percy Emert are continuing to field phone calls and press inquiries about the mystery — so much so that Emert's wife, Connie, is sorry that the poor critter was caught in the first place.
"She just wishes we let it go," Percy Emert said.
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Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.