Ground Squirrel Facts | Anatomy, Diet, Habitat, Behavior

Ground squirrels are short haired and short legged rodents that are widely distributed from North America, North Africa, to as far as north Asia and Eastern Europe. They are extremely varied in sizes with largest ground squirrel is nearly 100 times heavier than the smallest squirrel. Ground squirrels have got tail that makes up one third the length of the body.

Ground Squirrel Facts

Anatomy

  • The overall length of the ground squirrel measures around 7.2–30 in (18.3–75 cm) with the weight averaging 0.09–24 lb (0.04–11 kg).
  • They have got slender bushy tail and a cylindrical hairless body. Some species have dark and light stripes that run along the body while others show up small light spots with unique contrasting patches.
  • Nearly all ground squirrels are mainly recognized by their greyish to brown pelage and a light-colored eye ring.
  • There is a difference of sizes and colors in squirrel’s fur. Chipmunks for example are recognized by their dark to light stripes that are visible on the back.
  • African squirrels and antelope squirrels are thought to show a single white stripe on their bodies.
  • Ground squirrels have got large eyes and long whiskers.
  • They possess powerful short forelimbs along with sharp claws that are adapted to make underground burrows. The hind legs are longer and they help them to move faster on ground as well as on trees.
ground squirrel facts
Ground Squirrel

Geographic Range

  • Ground squirrels occur throughout the North Africa, central Europe, eastern Europe, north and east Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and central Asia.
  • They are not neither present in Southeast Asia nor in South America.
  • North America alone hosts more than 70 species of ground squirrels. The arctic ground squirrel is the only species that is found both in Asia and North America.
  • Almost all the chipmunk species are thought to survive in North America except for one species that is Siberian chipmunk.
  • No ground squirrel genera are native to Europe.

Habitat

  • The ground-dwelling squirrels are most likely to make homes in a wide variety of habitats and it includes savanna, temperate forests, desert, prairie, rocky slopes, subalpine forests, alipine meadows, arctic tundra, and shrub.
  • Chipmunks survive in thick forests and few of them may also nest in trees.
  • Ground squirrels are excellent climbers and they often climb up the trees when the predator is on the ground. Sometimes they climb shrubs to search food.
  • They make subterranean burrows in rocks, logs, and under trees.
  • Most ground squirrels make habitats in the ground rather than on the ground. That is to say they make underground burrows mostly in gravelly soil. However in cold arctic climates squirrels won’t be able to build such burrows.
  • Ground-dwelling squirrels will avoid dense forests or shrubs insofar as they can but chipmunks like closed forests.

Behavior

  • Ground squirrels are not only diurnal but are extremely conspicuous animals. They remain active all day especially against predators. Squirrels often stand on their hind feet to look out any potential danger and if they see one all of them give alarm calls.
  • While many ground squirrels live on the ground that doesn’t mean they cannot climb. Ground squirrels are excellent climbers.
  • The ground squirrel is likely to avoid the hottest hours which they spend in burrows to cool down their body temperature.
  • Squirrels of the deserts have got the remarkable ability to survive not only the heat of summer but also the cold winds of winter.
  • The North American ground squirrels go into hibernation but their annual cycle differs within population. Squirrels living in the central California will remain active all year round.
  • Ground squirrels of North America are thought to spend much of their lives in solitary burrows that is why they are rarely seen. In winter they go into hibernation state because they must conserve energy as the food goes short. Before hibernation ground squirrels make sure that they got enough fat reserves which could help them to survive days without eating.
  • In spring they typically eat seeds because it enhances the male’s ability to compete.
  • The hibernation period lasts about 18 – 19 days in midwinter but after 5 – 6 days they wake up to normalize their body temperature. Scientists however aren’t sure of the fact why ground squirrels arouse spontaneously.
  • The Spermophilus species may even wake up when the outside temperature reaches zero Degrees Celsius. They probably do so in order to avoid freezing.
  • During hibernation the squirrel’s brain doesn’t work but they are able to maintain constant body temperature at minus 2o The temperature in the burrow reaches minus 18o C. No wonder squirrels have got the amazing ability to survive hibernation stage without damaging their single tissue.
  • During spring young ground squirrels female squirrels get up rather frequently as compared to males.
  • Chipmunks are mostly solitary but marmots are social animals.
  • The hoary marmot is thought to form large groups that may have as many as 35 individuals.
  • The home range of ground squirrels is 0.1 – 7.9 ha.
ground squirrel facts
Wyoming Ground Squirrel ©www.ndow.org

Feeding Ecology & Diet

  • Ground squirrels are herbivores but many of them have got omnivorous diet.
  • Chipmunks typically rely on seeds and pine nuts but marmots mostly consume forbs and grasses.
  • Squirrel’s diet also consists of berries, tree buds, forbs, bark, shrubs, and fungi.
  • Many squirrels eat bird’s eggs as well as small mammals, small vertebrates, baby mice, carrion, reptiles, and amphibians.
  • The Nelson’s antelope squirrels feed on insects during the dry season.

Reproductive Biology

  • A female gives birth to 4 – 9 pups on average but the litter size usually depends on the species. In some populations, the litter size ranges from 2 – 5 pups.
  • The gestation period lasts about 50 – 60 days.
  • The ground squirrel pups are born naked and they remain in 21 – 35 days. Each of the pups weighs about 7.6 – 12 grams.
  • They attain maturity at 2 – 3 years age. Female squirrels are thought to mate minutes after they wake up from hibernation. However in spring, females mate 3 – 6 days after emergence from the hibernation.
  • Many ground squirrels prefer to mate in the underground burrows just to avoid predators.
  • Male ground squirrels live up to 7 years while females have a lifespan of 12 years.
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