There are a wide range of ground squirrels living in disparate habitats around the globe. Their behavior and appearance can vary widely due to the different ecosystems each species lives in. Nonetheless, these cute critters do share some characteristics that differentiate them from other rodents, including their propensity for living in underground burrows.
Types and Classification
Ground squirrels belong to the order Rodentia, so they are considered rodents, just like mice, rats and tree squirrels. They are differentiated from tree squirrels in that they make their homes in underground burrows instead of holes in trees. There are 62 different species of ground squirrels. They come in a wide range of colorings and patterns, including having striped, spotted or solid coats. They can reach up to 20 inches long or be smaller than a chipmunk.
Habitat and Lifestyle
Ground squirrels live in almost every type of habitat on Earth. There are 38 species of non-tropical ground squirrels in Eurasia and North America, which live in a wide variety of ecosystems including forests, desert, tundra and mountain tops. Arid regions of Africa are also home to ground squirrels. Tropical ground squirrels can be found in the forests of Southeast Asia. Ground squirrels spend their days foraging for seeds, nuts and green vegetation, and some species also eat eggs, insects and meat. They hide in their burrows and emit a whistle-like warning call when predators, such as hawks and snakes, approach.
Hibernation is common in ground squirrels that live in temperate climates. Many of the ground squirrels that live in habitats with cold climates hibernate for five to six months, during which time their breathing and heartbeat slow. Some types wake up periodically to eat before going back into hibernation. Ground squirrels in extremely hot and dry climates sometimes estivate in the summer. Estivation is similar to hibernation, but takes place during the hot summer months. Male ground squirrels usually go into estivation before females, since the females need to store more food before sleeping for months at a time. Some types of ground squirrels in temperate climates stay active all year and neither hibernate nor estivate.
Mating between ground squirrels usually takes place in the spring. Female ground squirrels usually have one litter of babies per year, although some types, such as the rock squirrel, have two litters. A litter typically consists of six or more babies, which gestate for about a month before being born. Baby ground squirrels stay in the burrow with their mother for about six weeks before emerging.