The Squirrel Family: America's Most Endearing Rodents
Wildlife sightings are an essential part of the national park experience. Whether you’re trekking into a national recreation area, a historical park, a national seashore, or any type of national park, you’re bound to encounter awesome reminders of the natural world around you.
Take squirrels, as an example. They’re playful, active, easy to spot chasing each other around, but how much do you really know about these furry creatures? Let’s start by testing your squirrel trivia.
Q: Which mammal is able to lower its body temperature to below freezing during hibernation?
A: The Arctic Squirrel.
Q: What Grand Canyon National Park native is one of the rarest mammals in the National Park System?
A: The Kaibab squirrel.
Q: Which animal enjoys an annual holiday on February 2?
A: Groundhogs (or marmots).
Q: Which social animal is known for living in little towns?
A: Prairie dogs.
Q: Which adorable little creatures inspired the creation of a well-known cartoon character and his band?
Be honest: how many of these did you get right? If you haven’t pieced it together yet, all of these species are part of the squirrel family (Sciuridae)! And each can be found in national parks across the country. Want to learn more and expand your squirrely knowledge? Then read on…
Chipmunks are the smallest members of the squirrel family. Though known for their tiny striped bodies, their large fur-lined cheek pouches are what really make chipmunks stand out in the family. While a squirrel would have to drop its snack in a dangerous situation, chipmunks can quickly pop their food into their mouths before running for safety — a nifty trick that would likely lead to choking if practiced by humans.
Least chipmunks are the smallest in North America, weighing only about 1.2 ounces. Their petite size makes them undeniably adorable, but don’t fall for their charms and give in to their begging for snacks! Feeding is not permitted, and human food can be harmful to chipmunks or any other wildlife you may see in the national parks.
Visit parks like Zion National Park, Devils Tower National Monument, or Saguaro National Park to see Uinta, least, or cliff chipmunks — each type having distinctive characteristics. These are only 3 of the 21 species of chipmunks found in the western United States. You can also spot Olympic chipmunks darting stealthily through the forests of Olympic National Park or catch a glimpse of an Eastern chipmunk within our nation’s capital while visiting Rock Creek Park.
Sometimes we become so used to seeing them daily that we don’t realize how remarkable squirrels truly are! They are some of the most populous mammals in many parks like Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, where you’re likely to spot the Wyoming Ground Squirrel while taking a yoga hike. These prairie dog-like squirrels burrow below ground and can be seen in the morning, popping in and out of their holes for safety.
Other lesser-known squirrels include the Arctic Ground Squirrel, which can be found in Denali National Park & Preserve. These unusual hibernators sleep for up to 8 months a year, their body temperatures dropping below freezing.
The Northern Flying Squirrel, found in parks including Mount Rainier National Park, does not fly, but is capable of gliding through trees using membranes of furry skin between their forelegs and hindlegs. Unfortunately, you’re less likely to see these big-eyed rodents as they are nocturnal, and thus rarely visible during the day.
The Abert’s Squirrel is perhaps the crazy uncle of the family, and can be found in parks like New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument. Poufy ear tufts make these quiet squirrels stand out, becoming most visible among Ponderosa pine trees during cooler months. Just as humans rotate an ear of corn, Abert’s squirrels enjoy rotating and munching on Ponderosa Pine cones. They can also be seen licking bark from boxelder trees to enjoy the sweet sap each spring!
Marmots are chunky, fuzzy, and the largest members of the squirrel family. During the frigid months at high elevations, marmots hibernate, burrowing deep inside their insulated homes filled with hay and their fellow colony members. In fact, half their lives are spent in hibernation, but when the warmer weather arrives, their heart beats begin to increase and soon you’re able to spot them in the parks.
Hoary marmots, found in parks such as North Cascades National Park, spend many of their waking hours eating, consuming huge amounts of vegetation during the short subarctic summers. The hoary marmot’s name comes from its fur color, which ranges between white or silvery grey. They’re playful creatures and enjoy wrestling and prancing about together.
Yellow-bellied marmots indeed have yellow bellies, as well as reddish-brown fur, and are relatives of woodchucks and groundhogs. Head to Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument and you might just see one running across the road or visit Wind Cave National Park to see if you can spot one of these portly fellows rushing about rocky areas of the park.
Olympic National Park has its own marmot — the Olympic marmot, which boasts being the second rarest marmot in North America. Thousands of years of isolation from other marmot communities mean that these marmots look and sound different than their relatives, even having a unique number of chromosomes.
Despite how furry and friendly they may appear, marmots pose a threat to your vehicle, infamous for eating radiator hoses and other car wires. If visiting a national park like Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, where marmots are known to sometimes cause havoc, taking precautions to marmot-proof your car is a smart idea!
Thankfully, the French chose to refer to these little guys as “petits chiens,” meaning “little dogs,” instead of a more accurate, but less endearing name, like “burrowing rodents.” Prairie dogs are known for their social behavior and intricate tunneling systems. But did you know that prairie dog colonies are further divided into coteries — family groups consisting of anywhere between 1 and 26 prairie dogs?
Though such prairie dog colonies once covered much of the Great Plains across the United States, today they are rare and two of the five prairie dog species found in the United States are considered threatened or endangered. The black-tailed prairie dog is the most common prairie dog species.
Black-tailed prairie dogs are a crucial part of the ecosystems they inhabit. In Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, these chipper locals clip vegetation and create an environment that attracts grassland birds. You can also spot these funny creatures in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where a quick break from the Scenic Loop at any of the three prairie towns in the South Unit is the perfect opportunity to stretch your legs.
Spot Utah prairie dogs in Bryce Canyon National Park’s meadows that border the northern roads, and notice their characteristic black eyebrows. Or hear the bark of the Gunnison’s prairie dogs by visiting Curecanti National Recreation Area. Though they were incorrectly blamed for ruining grazing areas and considered pests by early ranchers, these funny friends are a vital part of the local ecosystem and make up 75% of the food consumed by golden eagle chicks!
Keep Wildlife Wild
Even the sweetest of chipmunks or plumpest of marmots should not be approached or fed, and though prairie dogs are playful, they do bite! Keep a safe distance from all wild animals, and appreciate them in their natural habitat without interfering.
Whether you’re in the backwoods of a national recreation area out west or passing through an urban national historic site in a populous eastern city, chances are there’s a member of the squirrel family nearby. Take a minute to identify these funny creatures and then watch them from a safe distance as they dart about. Even the most common squirrel can add a bit of fun during your next #FindYourPark/#EncuentraTuParque adventure.