There are five main types of squirrels that live in the United States, and you may want to find out more info here on how to keep them from damaging your property. On the other hand, squirrels are responsible for keeping forests healthy by making sure that seeds can sprout, and they can even change a forest’s composition, so you shouldn’t underestimate their importance.
We are all familiar with squirrels and most probably we’ve all seen at least one in our lifetime, whether in a park or around the house. However, these tiny creatures that are sometimes considered to be a pest in certain areas, have multiple qualities that we might not even be aware of, and they certainly play an important role in the ecosystem.
However, before we get into more details on this topic, let’s first take a closer look at the most popular types of squirrels, so that we can understand them a little bit better. One of the first things that you should know is that there are over 200 species of these little animals that live around the world.
Their versatile and adaptable nature makes them suitable for various environments, so people are usually very familiar with their presence. When it comes to the United States, there are five main types of squirrels that we can find, namely the gray, fox, red, ground and flying ones.
They can live in the ground or trees, depending on the species, but most of them have the distinctive bushy tail, large ears, as well as sharp claws. The flying squirrels cannot really fly around, but their bodies do have a furred membrane that goes between their ankles and their wrists that they use to glide from one tree to another.
Gray & fox squirrels
Out of the species we’ve mentioned above, the gray squirrels are among the most popular ones and there are two different types that can be found across the country, namely the western or the eastern gray. In fact, the latter has made its way to Europe as well and its representatives usually live in three main locations on the western coast.
Gray squirrels are rather large and they can have a wide range of colors, despite their name, including black, cream, brown, and red, besides the obvious gray. Fox squirrels, on the other hand, can be found in most areas around the United States, but not on the eastern coast.
If you think that gray squirrels are quite large, then you might be surprised to know that fox ones are actually the largest type of these adorable creatures. Their bodies have a length that ranges from 17 to 27 inches, and they can have either black or gray fur with gold or tan undersides.
Red & ground squirrels
The red representatives of squirrels are much smaller than the ones we’ve discussed up until now, measuring around half the size of their gray counterparts. Furthermore, they also have the distinct coloring we usually have in mind when we think about these little creatures, namely a gray-red or orange-red fur with a white belly.
Another characteristic they have is that when other animals trespass into their territory, they are known to whistle loudly or chatter to drive the invaders away. Red squirrels usually live in colder areas, and they can be many times found in pine forests.
Ground squirrels, on the other hand, don’t live in trees. They prefer to dig burrows in plain and open habitats, prairies usually being a pretty popular choice. Some types of ground squirrels are the smallest species, weighing only up to 4 ounces. On the other hand, even if they are not large at all, they can cause significant damage due to their chewing and burrowing habits.
There are two types of flying squirrels that can be found across the United States, namely the northern and the southern ones. The former is the larger one, and it usually lives in areas such as Alaska, Michigan, Arizona, or the Appalachian mountains. Its southern counterpart, on the other hand, lives at lower elevations and in areas such as Florida.
Overall, these are small squirrels known for their nocturnal habitats, which is one of the particularities that set them apart from their larger counterparts.
Role in the ecosystem
Now that we’ve covered the general characteristics of the types of squirrels one can encounter around the United States, let’s take a closer look and see the role these little guys play in the ecosystem. As we know, nature tends to be perfect, every living creature fits a purpose, and the same goes for squirrels as well.
Given that many species live in forests, it’s only natural that they find their main sources of food there, but this also means that they help the forest’s renewal process as they eat. For example, during those years in which trees produce larger seed quantities, squirrels collect and set these aside for the harsh winter.
Of course, this usually applies to those types of seeds they prefer, such as chestnut, hazel, beech, or stone pine, but this doesn’t mean that the other trees don’t gain benefits as well. These little guys spend a lot of time hiding groups of seeds in the ground, and some of them are later used during the winter or discovered by other animals.
However, not all of them end up being eaten, which means that certain seeds get the chance to germinate and result in new plants and trees, thus maintaining the forest’s development. This process might not sound like something very important, but it actually is. Some of these seeds are heavy so they would normally have fewer chances to be able to sprout otherwise.
In fact, this might come as a surprise for those who are not familiar with the way a forest works, but squirrels are responsible for much of the renewal of chestnut trees. The same goes for other types of trees as well, so these little furry guys we sometimes see as being a pest are of tremendous help when it comes to this aspect.
Other benefits they bring
This applies mostly to red squirrels, but these tiny animals eat many mushrooms as well, and this includes hypogeous ones as well. This process helps fungi eject spores, which then reach new spots around the plants and trees, and there they play an important role in helping these grow.
Fungi are responsible for ensuring water and minerals to plants, among other things, which means that even though it’s not something very obvious to people in general, squirrels, trees, and mushrooms are all connected in a rather complex and mutually supporting system.
On the other hand, it’s important to know that each type of squirrel found in a certain area has its own strategy of storing seeds or eating mushrooms that suit the plants and trees there, which means that bringing other species in a new habitat is not necessarily beneficial.
In fact, this can lead to certain imbalances and lead to negative effects when it comes to the forest’s health, so if you do own property that has trees as well, you may want to be aware of this aspect as you are looking for the most suitable ways in which you can preserve nature.
As it’s many times the case, the right thing to do is to simply allow native plants and animals to continue their daily lives, as they are usually already in balance. On the other hand, if things are for some reason not balanced, you can always talk to a local specialist to get the right solution that is suitable for your specific area.
Other fun facts about squirrels
The truth is that these little creatures that tend to constantly chew on something have a wide range of interesting behaviors, in order to survive. Given that we’ve already talked about the fact that they bury seeds, a strategy that in time can actually change a forest’s composition, it’s good to know that they sometimes rub their faces on these seeds to be able to find them later.
Furthermore, people are still trying to figure out what makes a squirrel decide whether to eat a seed right away or to bury it instead for later use. There are various theories going around, including that the location’s safety or the seed’s nutritional level might play a role, but we still have a lot to understand about squirrels.