- A-Z Animals
A squirrel is any of the small- to medium-sized rodents that belong to the family Sciuridae. Although to most people, the word squirrel represents the different species of tree squirrels, other rodents like marmots, chipmunks, prairie dogs, flying squirrels, and ground squirrels are also included in the family Sciuridae. These mammals, distinguished by their long bushy tail, occupy a wide range of habitats throughout the world. Most species of squirrels are hunted for food, but some tropical species are kept as pets, while the red squirrels are valued for their thick fur.
There are five extant subfamilies of squirrels, consisting of about 58 genera with some 285 species. These subfamilies include Oriental giant squirrels (Ratufinae), neotropical pygmy squirrels (Sciurillinae), tree squirrels, and true flying squirrels (Sciurinae), Asian ornate squirrels (Callosciurinae), and terrestrial squirrels (Xerinae).
The following are some of the most common squirrel species in the world:
Size: Squirrels are typically small animals, varying in size, with the smallest being the least pygmy squirrel and the African pygmy squirrel that measure 3.9-5.5 inches in length. Some of the larger species include the Bhutan giant flying squirrel that reaches a length of 4 feet 2 inches.
Weight: The least and African pygmy squirrels weigh 0.42-0.92 oz while the Bhutan giant flying squirrel can weigh about 18 lb.
Color: Their coat color is highly variable, ranging from gray to red or yellowish-brown. Occasionally, they are also white and black. Tropical species usually have a complex coat pattern, with combinations of orange, red, brown, maroon, white, gray, and black.
Body: Squirrels usually have slender bodies and can be distinguished by their large eyes, furred feet, and bushy tails. Their hind limbs are visibly longer than their forelimbs, with each paw having four to five toes, including a poorly developed thumb.
Fur: Most species have soft and silky fur, but some species like the red squirrel and the eastern gray squirrel have thicker fur.
Squirrels occur throughout the world, ranging from Canada and Alaska, through the United States to South America in the New World. Their distribution in the Old World extends from Africa through Europe to Asia. Although they are not indigenous to Australia, two species, including the American gray squirrel and the northern palm squirrel, were introduced a couple of centuries back.
They are found in almost every natural habitat, including boreal and coniferous forests, tropical rainforests, savannas, and semi-arid deserts. They do not, however, live in the driest of deserts and the high polar regions.
Wild squirrels have a life expectancy of 5-10 years, but captive individuals can live for about 10-20 years.
Squirrels are mainly herbivorous animals and feed on a variety of plants. They also eat the seeds of plants, nuts, fruits, conifer cones, and fungi. Some squirrels consume meat when faced with severe hunger. Species like the thirteen-lined ground squirrel and the white-tailed antelope squirrel eat young snakes, small birds, insects, lizards, bird eggs, and smaller rodents.
Squirrels mate one or two times a year and carry their young ones for 3-6 weeks, after which they usually give birth to 2-8 offspring. In most species, the female squirrels look after their babies that are weaned at about 6-10 weeks. The young squirrels become sexually matured by the time they become one year of age.
After birth, the baby squirrels are incapable of moving around independently since they are born blind, toothless, and naked. They depend entirely on their mothers for about 2-3 months for their survival.
While many squirrel species, including the eastern gray squirrel and the Eurasian red squirrel, have been listed as ‘least concern’ by the IUCN, there are some such as the Namdapha flying squirrel that has been considered critically endangered.
Although the ground squirrels hibernate in the winter months, tree squirrel species do not do so.
Squirrels belong to a family of small- to medium-sized rodents called Sciuridae.
While the tree and flying squirrels sleep in their nests, the ground squirrels live and sleep in the burrows, which they dig into the ground.
Although squirrels are mainly herbivores, they sometimes feed on small birds and their eggs, insects, smaller rodents, and young snakes.
Small rodents such as squirrels, guinea pigs, chipmunks, hamsters, and gerbils have never been found to carry rabies or transmit the disease to humans.
Some of the predators that may kill and eat squirrels include domestic and wild cats, polecats, domestic dogs, weasels, badgers, red foxes, and mink.