Squirrel

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.

Squirrel Scientific Classification

Animalia
Chordata
Mammalia
Rodentia
Sciuridae

Scientific Classification

Squirrel

Animalia
Chordata
Mammalia
Rodentia
Sciuridae

List of Different Types of Squirrels

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:

  • Fox squirrel
  • Eastern gray squirrel
  • Western gray squirrel
  • Abert’s squirrel
  • Southern flying squirrel
  • Northern flying squirrel
  • Siberian flying squirrel
  • Japanese dwarf flying squirrel
  • California ground squirrel
  • Eurasian red squirrel
  • American red squirrel
  • Richardson’s ground squirrel
  • African ground squirrel
  • Columbian ground squirrel
  • Arctic ground squirrel
  • Round-tailed ground squirrel
  • Wyoming ground squirrel
  • Mexican ground squirrel
  • Rock squirrel
  • Eastern chipmunk
  • Siberian chipmunk
  • Alpine marmot
  • Groundhog
  • Colorado chipmunk
  • Indian giant squirrel
  • Grizzled giant squirrel
  • Indian palm squirrel
  • Black giant squirrel
  • Plantain squirrel
  • Pallas’s squirrel
  • Douglas squirrel
  • Pine squirrel
  • Sun squirrel
  • Green bush squirrel
  • Prevost’s squirrel
  • Finlayson’s squirrel
  • Tufted pygmy squirrel
  • Smith’s bush squirrel

Physical Description and Appearance

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.

Squirrel

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.

Distribution

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.

What Kind of Habitats do Squirrels live in

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.

Squirrel Habitat
Squirrel Hands

Lifespan

Wild squirrels have a life expectancy of 5-10 years, but captive individuals can live for about 10-20 years.

Diet

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.

Behavior

  • Tree squirrels and ground squirrels are typically either crepuscular or diurnal. Flying squirrels, on the other hand, are nocturnal except for the lactating mothers and their babies, which remain active during the day in the summer.
  • Some squirrel species like the Eastern gray squirrel can swim across rivers with their tail flat and head up above the surface. Thomas’s rope squirrel can even swim underwater.
  • The ground-dwelling species are generally social and live in well-developed colonies, but the tree-dwellers are more solitary.
Squirrel Feet
Squirrel Size

Adaptations

  • Squirrels possess soft, fleshy pads on the soles of their feet, which, along with the sturdy claws, help them in climbing and grasping.
  • The ankles of tree squirrels are so flexible that they can rotate their hind paws by 180 degrees and point backward, thereby allowing them to grip the bark from the reverse direction and descend head-first.
  • They have large eyes, which help them see in dim light, thereby providing excellent vision.
  • Some squirrels have special hairs, called vibrissae, on their heads and limbs that provide them with an excellent sense of touch.
  • They have large incisors that grow all through their life and help in gnawing food. The cheek teeth, on the other hand, help in grinding their food.

Mating and Reproduction

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.

Baby Squirrel
Squirrel Nest

What does a Baby Squirrel look like

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.

Conservation Status

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.

Squirrel – FAQs

1. Do squirrels hibernate?

Although the ground squirrels hibernate in the winter months, tree squirrel species do not do so.

2. Are squirrels rodents?

Squirrels belong to a family of small- to medium-sized rodents called Sciuridae.

3. Where do squirrels sleep?

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.

4. Do squirrels eat meat?

Although squirrels are mainly herbivores, they sometimes feed on small birds and their eggs, insects, smaller rodents, and young snakes.

5. Do squirrels carry rabies?

Small rodents such as squirrels, guinea pigs, chipmunks, hamsters, and gerbils have never been found to carry rabies or transmit the disease to humans.

6. What predators eat squirrels?

Some of the predators that may kill and eat squirrels include domestic and wild cats, polecats, domestic dogs, weasels, badgers, red foxes, and mink.

Interesting Facts

  • Among the living rodent families, squirrels most closely resemble the dormice and the mountain beaver.
  • Squirrels are synanthropic by nature, which means they live near human beings and benefit from their association in human environments.
  • Ground-dwelling squirrels are mostly social animals and live in groups, called ‘scurry’ or ‘dray’.