With more than 350 species, plus sub-species, of squirrels living just about everywhere on the planet, you're bound to look out your window and see one. Unless you live in Australia -- squirrels don't live down under. As urban wildlife, they have adapted to life in lots of other places, however.
Squirrels are among the most commonly seen animals in both rural and urban settings. Fox squirrels are the largest of the squirrel species in North America. The largest squirrel in the squirrel family, however, is the Indian giant squirrel, a native of India. This big guy can grow to a whopping 3 feet in length and weigh in at 4 pounds. Chipmunks, recognized by their distinctive bold striping patterns, are the smallest sub-species of squirrels. The tiniest of all the squirrels is the African pygmy squirrel; it's only 5 inches long and is found only in parts of Africa.
Eastern Gray Squirrel
The Eastern gray squirrel is very similar in appearance to the fox squirrel, but is found in different regions of the U.S. with very little overlap. While the fox squirrel is only found in some western and central states, parts of the eastern U.S. and Canada, the eastern gray squirrel is found in many more parts of the country and around the world. The red squirrel, a sub-species found in parts of Europe, Great Britain and Ireland, has a distinctive red coat and lives in forests and woodlands. The grey squirrel has taken over much of the natural habitat of the red squirrel, which is a far less hardy species, forcing Irish conservationists to be vigilant about its survival.
Flying squirrels are the only nocturnal species of squirrel. Though the name would imply a talent for flight, they're really only gliding. Their limbs are covered in skin that gives them lift when they fall horizontally from a high tree. They use this method of escape to avoid ground predators such as snakes, big cats and other tree-climbing squirrel-eaters. When gliding, however, they risk attracting predators from the sky. Hawks, eagles and other raptors will zero in on them and attempt to catch them in flight. For this reason, they have an instinctive need to run quickly away upon landing to outrun their enemy. Squirrels can run up to 20 miles an hour, which is their real only means of defense besides staying perfectly still so as not to attract attention to themselves in the first place. There are 35 sub-species of flying squirrel.
Thirty-five species of chipmunks are scattered about the world, and all but the Asian Tamias sibiricus live in North America. Chipmunks have adapted to all kinds of environments including urban, deserts and heavily treed forests. Chipmunks, unlike most other squirrels, sometimes dig dens and burrows with elaborate chambers and tunnels. Chipmunks are not easily confused with grey squirrels since they're so much smaller than the average squirrel and have distinctive striped coats. Their cheeks have pouches to carry home grains, nuts and fruits, which they store and use during hibernation.
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.