Squirrels are adorable from their cute faces, furry tails, and outstanding flying feats. We also know them to be the most common culprit of shenanigans like stolen vegetables or a ruckus in the attic. But a closer look at these energetic animals reveals some intriguing squirrel facts essential for the curious animal lover.
The word ‘squirrel’ is derived from the Greek word ‘skiouros,’ which means “shade or shadow tail.5” The squirrel’s tail is its most conspicuous feature, but you probably didn’t know it was also the source of the animal’s name.
Almost everyone has seen a squirrel, partly thanks to the animal’s rather intrusive way of creating a habitat for itself. Squirrels are quite adaptive, they live anywhere they can make a home, from tundra to tropical rainforest terrains. These fluffy-tailed mammals are found on every continent of the world, living almost anywhere there is vegetation.
Australia is one of the few places without native squirrels and had to deliberately introduce the northern palm squirrel in 1898. The squirrels were released on the WA South Perth Zoo grounds and can still be found in Australia today, even outside zoo grounds, particularly in Perth. Other places without native squirrels are Antarctica4, Madagascar, Greenland, and the Sahara desert.
When you think of squirrels, what comes to mind? A furry rodent not much bigger than a teacup? It might surprise you to learn that not all adult squirrels are the same size or even look the same. There are about 268 species of squirrel in the world, and that makes for a rather astonishing size variation.
The African pygmy squirrel is the smallest squirrel there is. It can measure at most 5 inches from nose to tail in adulthood. The largest squirrel is the Indian giant squirrel which can grow up to 3 feet long. Some squirrel species, like the African pygmy squirrel, can weigh only 0.5 ounces. Like the Indian giant squirrel, others can be as heavy as 4 pounds.
Most squirrels have long bushy tails that are almost the same as their body length, but a few other squirrels, like the Harris’ antelope squirrels, have smaller but fluffy tails. The tail of the ground squirrel is not as bushy as those of the other types. They have whiskers around their eyes, cheek, nose, wrist, chin, and legs.
On their body specifications, squirrels have long and slender bodies. Of the three types of squirrel, the ground squirrel is the most robust. Flying and tree squirrels have a slimmer look. They have either fine soft, or thick hair and rather large eyes. Squirrel fur ranges from black, white, tan, brown, olive, and gray. Some species have long stripes on their backs.
Their forefeet have four toes, while the muscular hind legs have five toes. The toes of the forefeet have extremely sharp claws, which provide a strong grip for climbing and help with digging.
Squirrels usually live solitary lives, and this lifestyle is most common with the tree squirrels. They form loose groups or pair up to travel, secure resources, or keep warm. Flying squirrels are nocturnal and form small loose groups to stay warm and care for their young ones.
Prairie dogs, a type of ground squirrel, live in large communities with hundreds of members. Ground squirrels are very social. Their group living allows for play, vocalization, and communal grooming. Male ground squirrels help to care for the baby squirrels.
Squirrels communicate with vocalization and body language. Vocalization is common in mating season or periods of aggression. Squirrels will often use specific alarm calls to warn the group of dangers. The sound that signals an aerial predator is distinct from the one that warns of a terrestrial predator.
Tail position, body posture, or feet stomping is also a means of communication for squirrels. Sometimes, such as in mating season, the females communicate sexual readiness chemically through a release of pheromones.
The answer to “how long do squirrels live” varies. Squirrels can live for 8-14 years in the wild, but many squirrels do not survive past the first year. They are protected from predators when in captivity so they can live longer. They live for 16 years or more in captivity. A flying squirrel will feed on breast milk for about 70 days, while ground squirrels breastfeed for an average of 38 days.
Baby squirrels are entirely dependent on their mother for about 26-42 days. Some species reach sexual maturity after 87 days, and others don’t mature until they are about 3 years old.
Answer: We have three categories of squirrels, classified according to their most prominent adaptive behavior. The squirrel types are ground squirrels, tree squirrels, and flying squirrels.
Squirrels are notably busybodies, but tree squirrels are the showiest. They can be easily seen leaping from tree to tree in parks, woodlands, or yards with some trees. Tree squirrels live in nests made from leaves and will nest in attics or chimneys. They are excellent climbers.
You can commonly find the eastern gray squirrels in urban and suburban areas of North America. Some gray squirrels have white fur, but they are not albinos because of tiny tufts of gray found on the back of their heads and shoulders. The red squirrel is another beloved arboreal squirrel. People love it for its exquisite fur and often keep it as pets.
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, tree squirrels are the number one wildlife trouble markers in urban and suburban areas. They often steal bird feed and destroy feeders to get to it.
This category of squirrels lives in tunnels or burrows, and some squirrel species hibernate during the winter. The arctic ground squirrel, native to the arctic, can withstand freezing temperature during hibernation by dropping its body temperature3. The body temperature drops from 99 degrees F (37 degrees C) to 27 degrees F (-3 degrees C).
Ground squirrels have short, strong forelimbs that they use for digging. They may sometimes be melanistic; completely black. But usually have fur tones ranging from gray, brown, and buff. Gray squirrels are ground squirrels with grayish fur.
Like birds, flying squirrels make their homes in nests or tree holes. They do not have wings to really fly but glide effortlessly from tree to tree, thanks to a skin flap. This flap of skin, called a patagium, connects their limbs to their bodies and provides a winglike structure.
Squirrels can glide far more than a distance of 150 feet but can be laughably clumsy on the ground. In the air, they are agile and perform impressive maneuvers like sharp turns. A flying squirrel has the longest limbs compared to other squirrels. They also have big eyes that help them see better at night. In 2019, scientists discovered that some species of flying squirrel can glow at night2.
Asia has the most flying squirrels1, but three species are native to America. A flying squirrel can be just a few inches in size or larger than a housecat. They do not hibernate but become less active when winter comes around.
The squirrel’s four front teeth never stop growing, and that's good for them because how else would they keep up with constant gnawing. The continual gnawing keeps the teeth short and sharp.
Squirrels are primarily omnivores that eat plants and other smaller animals. Cartoons will often show squirrels gorging themselves on acorns, but a squirrel's meal preference is quite diversified.
They like to feed on fungi, diverse kinds of nuts, seeds, berries, leaves, roots, tree bark, and flowers. Their animal food sources include insects, caterpillars, baby birds, and eggs. Some species are vegetarians, though.
Squirrels can eat their body weight in food within a week. They are clever creatures and can navigate numerous obstacles to get their food.
Some squirrel species particularly enjoy sucking on tree sap because it provides sodium. They will often strip tree bark of the upper branches to gain access to salt-rich sap. Where there are no trees available, like in attics, squirrels may turn to chemicals in electric wire insulation, mortar, or plywood glue.
Squirrel owners or people who don’t mind sharing their yards with squirrels can prevent the destructive search for salt by leaving salt blocks in easily accessible places.
While squirrels are predators themselves, they have to watch their backs for bigger predators who love to snack on them. Flight is one of the few natural defenses a squirrel has, but not all squirrels can fly. They typically have a fur coat color that matches their habitat and allows them to blend in to hide from predators.
They also use their claws to defend themselves, and prairie dogs will launch an offensive attack on snakes living near their territory. To protect themselves better, squirrels team up to watch out for danger. They warn the group of imminent danger with whistling calls.
The mating season for squirrels happens at different times of the year based on the type of squirrel. A male squirrel can smell a female in heat from a mile away during the mating season. A female squirrel may mate with multiple males in one season, so her litter may have different fathers.
Female squirrels usually produce a litter of 2-8 offspring but can have several litters in a year. The pregnancy period is about 29-65 days, depending on the species. Smaller-sized squirrels have shorter gestation periods, while larger-sized pieces like the Indian giant squirrel have longer gestation periods.
The most iconic behavior of squirrels is storing nuts and acorns to ensure survival during the winter. Most squirrels don’t dig up all the buried food, so the unrecovered nuts grow into trees. Squirrels play a significant role in spreading oak trees.
When squirrels eat flowers, drink nectar, or scurry from place to place, they aid pollination and seed dispersal. Their burrowing sometimes helps with soil aeration. Other animals like cottontail rabbits, shrews, and raccoons find homes in abandoned squirrel burrows.
Squirrels have always been hunted for food and their gorgeous pelt. The squirrel pelt was so valuable people used it as currency. The name of Finland's currency comes from the word squirrel skins in Finnish.
No ‘facts about squirrels list’ is complete without including the animal’s celebrity status. Remember the popular children’s movie Charlie and the Chocolate factory? The 2005 remake had a squirrel scene that featured 40 real squirrels—the squirrels trained for the role with the help of The Nut Room Animal trainer Michael Alexander. The training took months of hard work, but we would say the squirrels nailed it.
In Longview, Washington, there is a bridge named nutty narrows built by Amos Peters. He wanted to help squirrels who came to feast on the library grounds find the most efficient route to return to their homes safely. There were too many cases of squirrels being run over.
Today, the city holds an annual squirrel fest in honor of the amazing creatures. The city is kind of a squirrel-lovers capital.
Further aiding their celebrity, squirrels are one of the rare wild mammals that we regularly see during the daylight in our parks, gardens, and urban settings. Of course, they enjoy fame as they are super cute (unless destroying your garden planters to stash their nuts for winter), unlike some of the world's ugliest animals, which deserve their moment in the spotlight too.
The Eurasian red squirrel is classified as near threatened. Their numbers have declined since the introduction and growth of the grey squirrel population. Red squirrels end up competing with the more dominant grey squirrel for food and habitat. They have also suffered a decline from squirrel pox disease.
In America, the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel experienced a 90% reduction of its habitat due to deforestation. Thanks to the effort of conservationists, they removed it from the endangered species list in 2015.
The trees they feed on may experience stunted growth or death when they eat bark. This is the squirrel problem. They can chew through electrical cords, wood paneling, and insulation. They have been known to cause power outages time and again.
Squirrels also carry diseases that they can transfer to humans. In 2013, the Los Angeles National forest authorities shut down camping when they found an infected squirrel living on the grounds. In 2020, a teenage boy died from the infection after eating a marmot mountain squirrel.
Chipmunks, prairie dogs, and marmots are squirrels too. Whether ground, flying, or tree, squirrels are such a lovely sight to behold. If you have only seen squirrels as pests, these amazing squirrel facts show you how awesome they can be.
Brian S Arbogast et al (2017) Genetic data reveal a cryptic species of new world flying squirrel: Glaucomys oregonensis. Journal of Mammalogy. Vol 98, issue 4, pages 1027-1041.
Allison M. Kohler et al (2019) Ultraviolet fluorescence discovered in new world flying squirrels (Glaucomys). Journal of Mammalogy. Vol 100, issue 1, pages 21-30.
Arctic Ground Squirrel. Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Animal Diversity Web. Sciuridae squirrels.
Encyclopedia Britannica. Squirrel
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.