Squirrels’ characteristics are similar to those of rats and mice because they are all rodents. However, they have many unique adaptations that clearly separate them from each other.
Worldwide, there are millions of squirrels, which contribute to the integrity and biodiversity of forests, grasslands, and deserts.
Continue reading to learn about 15 unique characteristics of squirrels.
15 Characteristics of Squirrels
Characteristics in Animals
The following characteristics of squirrels are present in their behavior and physical structure. Physical characteristics include all aspects of the animal’s physical body, including its shape, size, sensory organs, and visual appearance.
Behavioral characteristics are the types of actions the animal takes when it interacts with its surroundings. They include hunting for prey, bonding with other members of its species, or investigating a territorial threat.
1. Squirrels are rodents
Squirrels are members of the family Rodentia. Rodents can be as large as a medium-sized dog, or as small as a quarter. Squirrels fall in the middle of that lineup, as most are around a foot from nose to tail.
Rodents are characterized by four sharp, gnawing incisors at the front of their mouths. Squirrels use their incisors to gnaw at different plant foods. Most of their favorite meals are nuts, which have a hard shell that can be difficult to break into.
Like other mammals, females give birth to live young, which they nurse with milk. They have a strong sense of smell, hearing, and vision. Their silky, fluffy fur helps them stay warm in cold weather and cool when it is hot.
2. They adapt well to human development
Squirrels evolved to live in a variety of habitats. Deserts, temperate forests, rainforests, and grasslands are all home to squirrels.
They inhabit suburban neighborhoods and agricultural fields. Many live on the margins of human development where they take advantage of bird feeders, ornamental trees’ seeds, and the lack of predators.
3. Squirrels have advanced spatial memory
Whether a squirrel lives in a burrow or in a tree, it keeps an elaborate mental map of its location. Squirrels are prey animals, so they must have quick reaction times in order to escape predators.
They also need to know where they stored food. These needs translate to the squirrel knowing its territory with precision and accuracy.
To bird enthusiasts’ chagrin, this spatial awareness can help tree squirrels take advantage of bird feeders. They attack the feeder from all angles, attempting to solve the puzzle in every possible way.
4. Some squirrels turn their ankles 180 degrees to descend down tree trunks head-first
Tree squirrels have special adaptations that help them live in trees. While most tree-climbing mammals would descend down a tree hind-end first, tree squirrels have the ability to descend head-first.
Their ankles can rotate backwards, which lets them grip branches and limbs with more power than they could if they faced forward. It helps them climb faster, flee from prey, and access food sources other animals can’t get to.
5. Squirrels’ vocal cords create a variety of sounds
Squirrels are conversational rodents! Songbirds can be scared away from a backyard when a territorial squirrel stakes its claim on a bird feeder.
Chirping, tooth grinding, and purring are all components of squirrel vocabulary. One adaptation squirrels have made to human development is changing how much they vocalize. Squirrels in loud cities signal more with their tails, while squirrels living in quiet forests chirp and ‘talk’ more.
6. They have a strong sense of sight
Tree squirrels have better vision than other species of squirrels. Living in trees offers more visual stimulus than living in a burrow.
In the forest canopy, threats come from any direction, and the squirrel must navigate a way out. Good vision helps them see approaching threats and escape routes from potential predators.
7. They mate once or twice per year
A squirrel’s species determines how social the parents of the babies are. Ground squirrels have sophisticated social networks. Related pups from previous litters may help their parents raise a new generation of young.
Since tree squirrels are solitary, only the mother takes care of the babies. She makes a nest in a live tree or snag, which she lines with leaves, twigs, soft plant material, and hair.
Regardless of social activity level, squirrels are born blind, toothless, and furless. Most leave the nest by three months old. They can mate after about a year.
8. Their fur can be gray, white, brown, or red
Squirrels’ fur color varies across species and even among animals of the same species! The color of a squirrel’s fur usually helps it camouflage into its surrounding environment.
Prairie dogs, a type of squirrel, are tan to match sandy soil. Tree squirrels are red, brown, or gray, all colors that blend in well with tree bark.
Even completely white tree squirrels exist. An albino colony of squirrels in Illinois is protected by law.
9. Squirrels use their tails to stay dry and warm
Squirrels’ tails serve many functions, one of which is to maintain body heat. Tree squirrels’ tails have long, dense fur which is water resistant and can puff up to keep the animal warm.
In wet weather, the squirrel curls its tail over its body like an umbrella. In cold weather, you might see a tree squirrel with its tail wrapped around itself like a scarf or feather boa.
Ground squirrels’ tails are smaller and serve less obvious purposes. However, they still use them to signal with other squirrels and to indicate their moods.
10. Depending on where they live, they can be social
Squirrels which live in temperate climates without harsh winters are more likely to be social than squirrels preoccupied with storing enough food for the winter.
Colonies of squirrels spring up around forested areas or and open woodlands where acorns, nuts, and young plants are available.
Ground-dwelling squirrels live together in colonies, while tree-dwelling squirrels are more competitive and spend most of their time alone.
11. Male and female squirrels look very similar
Across most species of squirrels, males and females look very similar. Males might be slightly larger, but they are usually hard to tell apart.
In the spring, you may be able to identify a female ground or tree squirrel if she is lactating to feed her babies. Her abdomen will be swollen and she may appear fluffier or fatter than other squirrels.
12. They are intelligent and good problem-solvers
Squirrels are prey animals that many predators like to snack on. It follows that these furry rodents would be clever in avoiding threats, not to mention finding food themselves.
Many backyard birders have been annoyed by persistent squirrels trying to break into their bird feeders. To a squirrel, a bird feeder is like a pinata full of thanksgiving dinner – irresistible.
13. They hoard food with the intention to return to it later
Since squirrels can’t digest cellulose, they seek out high-fat, high-protein, and high-carbohydrate food sources. These foods – nuts, seeds, fruit, and flower buds – aren’t available year round. Some eat insects, other small mammals, and even eggs.
Like many rodents, squirrels are food hoarders. They do this to provide for themselves during times of scarcity. However, their methods are not foolproof.
Many trees have been ‘planted’ by forgetful squirrels. Tree squirrels, especially those in places with harsh winters, create a store of nuts and seeds in a nest in the hopes that it will last through the winter.
However, not all are successful. Many young squirrels don’t survive their first winter.
14. Squirrels can be extremely territorial and vocal to potential threats
Squirrels compete with other animals for their food sources. Rabbits, deer, mice, rats, and other squirrels are just a few of the competitors that threaten their security when winter comes.
As a result, squirrels are extremely territorial. They will chase off other squirrels and puff up their tails in attempts to intimidate animals much larger than they are.
15. Some hibernate through cold winters
Depending on the species and the geographic location, squirrels will hibernate during the winter. When snow covers the ground it is difficult to find food, so they save energy via this process.
Tree squirrels simply sleep most of the day. They sustain themselves by eating from their cache of food. Ground squirrels, on the other hand, enter a state of hibernation that lasts from September to March.
Hibernation is a process that lowers an animal’s energy requirements. A hibernating squirrel’s heart beats more slowly, its core temperature drops, and it lives just on the fat reserves it stored up before going to sleep.