The Parklands

Squirrelin’ Around

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a squirrel? To many people living in Kentucky, the word squirrel means a tree dwelling, nut eating, fluffy tailed woodland creature. But did you know that chipmunks are squirrels?

There are 278 species of squirrels in the world and they all belong to the family of rodents, Sciuridae. In this family, squirrels are grouped into the following categories: tree squirrels, flying squirrels and ground squirrels. Squirrels, like all organisms, are classified by the way they are related to each other.

Squirrels are fascinating creatures that live on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. There is great diversity among squirrels behavioral and physical adaptations necessary to thrive in their environment. Let’s take a quick look at just a few of their many adaptations:

  • A ground squirrel, such as a chipmunk or prairie dog, will have a small tail to help it burrow, whereas a tree squirrel has a bigger tail to aid in balance and heat conservation.  
  • All squirrels see in color, but they have red-green color blindness, meaning they can differentiate red and green from other colors, but they can’t distinguish red and green from each other.
  • Tree squirrels and ground squirrels have yellow tinted lenses, similar to sunglasses, to help reduce glare from bright light, increase the contrast between colors and give squirrels sharper vision. However, flying squirrels have clear lenses because they are nocturnal and rarely encounter bright light.
  • This excerpt was taken from the book, Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide – “One of the most striking features of tree and flying squirrels is their ability to turn their hind feet around when they are coming down a tree headfirst. For you, the equivalent move would be to stand on your tiptoes, rotate your ankle so that the soles of your feet face each other, then keep rotating them until the soles of your feet point forward – without moving the rest of your leg!”

How awesome is that!?  

Squirrels are full of little wonders, but most of us would not recognize these amazing adaptations without taking the time to get to know our woodland friend. There are so many interesting facts to be learned about squirrels, but this blog would surely turn into a book if I tried to name them all!

So, if you want to learn more about the “most watched” mammal on the planet, I’d recommend the book, Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide by Richard W. Thorington and Katie Ferrell. You can also join the Interpretive Rangers at the PNC Achievement Center in Beckley Creek Park on January 21 for our 4th Annual Squirrel Day Celebration! Come prepared to explore a variety of activities and discover the importance of squirrels!

Did you know?

The largest ground squirrels are Marmots. In North America, the Yellow Bellied Marmot of the Rocky Mountains is the most well-known, but the largest of all marmots lives in Kazakhstan. The gray marmot of Kazakhstan can weigh more than 18 pounds before entering hibernation!

The largest tree squirrel lives in Southern Asia and is named the Indian Giant Tree Squirrel. Weighing up to 4 pounds, these squirrels have extraordinarily long tails to help counterbalance the mass of the body. 

One of the smallest squirrels in the world is the African Pygmy Squirrel – weighing 16 grams or slightly more than an ounce.

The largest flying squirrel is the Woolly Flying Squirrel in northern Pakistan, Afghanistan, and northwestern India. They measure 39 inches from head to tail and weigh 5.5 pounds. This animal has been listed as endangered on the IUCN Red list of Threatened Species due to habitat loss. Not much is known about these specimens. Until 1994 there had been no confirmed sightings of this species since 1924!

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