Squirrels: fluffy, resourceful, and seemingly everywhere, they are a common animal throughout North America, including here in the Sawtooths. Although they may not be as exciting as the mountain goats found on our tallest peaks or the osprey that dive into our lakes and rivers, they are a vital and valuable part of our ecosystem! The purpose of this blog is to explain the different types of squirrels found in the SNRA, how you can identify them, and the roles they each play.
Most people imagine squirrels climbing trees in their neighborhoods or yards, but did you know there are species prefer to avoid heights? Ground squirrels are still in the squirrel family (Sciruidae). Marmots and prairie dogs actually also fall into the category of “ground squirrel” but are classified differently due to their size. Ground squirrels are larger than tree squirrels and tend to have brownish-tan fur to blend in with the ground. They also have thinner, less bushy tails since they do not require them to balance among the trees. Lastly, ground squirrels live/nest in burrows and tree squirrels nest in, you guessed it, trees! The Sawtooths are home to many types of these two families of squirrels that you will spot on your trip here.
It would be nearly impossible to visit the Sawtooths and not see a golden-mantled ground squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis), one of the most common squirrels in the area. They are often mistaken for oversized chipmunks due to the white stripes that run up their backs, but unlike chipmunks, these stripes do not extend onto their faces. They are omnivores, eating anything from nuts and seeds to small mammals and bird eggs. You will often see them scurrying around, sometimes standing upright in the “picket pin posture”, with their cheeks full of seeds! This posture allows them to better see and hear their surroundings. They make shallow burrows up to 100 feet long, with hidden entrances underneath tree roots are boulders. This tunneling behavior helps aerate the ground which aides in overall forest health.
Let’s scurry up from the forest floor up into a lodgepole pine, prime habitat for the American red squirrel (Tamiascurius hudsonicus). These frisky critters are commonly known as pine squirrels or chickarees, named after their vocalizations. Pine squirrels are known for creating middens at the base of pine trees. They cut cones from the lodgepole pine and let them fall to the ground, where they will gather them into a pile and sustain themselves from the seeds for many years! They rely on these storage piles because they do not hibernate during the winter here unlike their ground squirrel cousins.
Squirrels have an important ecological role, especially in lodgepole-sagebrush ecosystems like the one’s commonly found around here. The seeds they gather before winter comes are not all consumed, some are buried or left in middens. These leftover seeds help repopulate the forest! Squirrels are also an important food source for many larger prey species in the area such as eagles, hawks, weasels, foxes, and coyotes. Although gardeners and farmers may view these critters as pest, it’s important to remember the benefits squirrels provide to our ecosystems as well as their charming behaviors.
Emma is a 2022 Naturalist for SIHA. She loves the little critters that fit into this incredibly diverse ecosystem, such as squirrels, otters, and even bats! Watching ground squirrels is one of her favorite pastimes.