Arctic Ground Squirrel

Spermophilus parryii
Parka squirrel, Tsik-Tsik, Sik-Sik, Gopher
Arctic ground squirrels are the biggest and most northern-dwelling of all North American ground squirrels. Their fur is brown with white spots, except the underside is usually off-white. They molt twice a year, and their coat is typically more soft and fine, and a reddish-brown color in spring, turning to gray-brown and being stiff and thick when winter approaches. Arctic ground squirrels have stubby legs with four toes. They walk using all four legs.
Unknown

population size

7-10 yrs

Life span

100-750 g

Weight

21.5-25 cm

Length

Disrtibution

The Arctic ground squirrel inhabits the Arctic parts of eastern Russia, and North America from Alaska to Hudson Bay and southwards to British Colombia. This animal occurs in Arctic tundra, forest clearings, open meadows, meadow-steppes and river valleys. It lives in sub-alpine and alpine zones up to altitudes of 1,400 meters, being often found on the edges of human settlements. The depth of permafrost (permanently frozen ground) needs to be at least one meter below the ground’s surface so that the squirrels are able to build their extensive burrows in order to survive.

Habits and lifestyle

Arctic ground squirrels are diurnal and live in colonies of 5-50 squirrels made up of a dominant male, several females plus young. They live in a complex system of burrows, with the entrances located under obstructions such as rocks, trees or logs, to hide them from predators. In spring territories are established, when the dominant male drives the other males away. The dominant male forms his territory to get access to food, females, favorable areas for hibernation and to discourage males in the area from mating with his group of females. A lactating female defends the area around her nursery in order to control local sources of food and to protect her young. The Arctic ground squirrel uses the scent from glands to warn others of its species away from its territory. It hibernates for about seven months, from September or October until the next March or April, emerging at a time which depends on the outside climatic conditions.

group name

dray, colony, scurry

Diet and nutrition

Arctic ground squirrels are omnivores, they mainly eat insects, birds’ eggs and sometimes each other’s young during the spring, and when winter approaches, berries, mushrooms, seeds, mosses and lichens are added to their diet. They also forage for dry grass and nuts to store for winter months.

Diet

Mating habits

Arctic ground squirrels exhibit both polygynous (one male mates with multiple females) and polygynandrous (promiscuous - both males and females have multiple mates) mating systems. The dominant male will usually be the father of the young, however, if he does not guard the female properly after mating, she may mate a second time with a different male. The mating season runs for about two weeks in late April soon after coming out of hibernation. Gestation is for three to six weeks, the female giving birth to one litter per year of six to eight young. A litter sometimes may contain up to 14. When born, kittens are without fur and teeth and have a covering of skin over their eyes. They develop quickly and are weaned when 28-35 days old, reaching independence at 6-7 weeks. Maturity is reached at about 1 year of age.

Mating behavior

Reproduction season

late April

Pregnancy duration

3-6 weeks

Independent age

6-7 weeks
doe

female name

buck

male name

pup, kit, kitten

baby name

14 kittens

baby carrying

Population

Population status

ne
dd
lc
nt
vu
en
cr
ew
ex

Population threats

Arctic ground squirrels are hunted for their skin and meat for local trade, and by Northern American Inuit tribes, which use their skins for boots, clothing, and other items. The habitat of this species is being degraded by human expansion and increased agriculture. Droughts are also a threat, possibly due to natural change, not human activity. In addition, these squirrels are predated throughout their range by many carnivores.

Population number

There are no estimates of population numbers for Arctic ground squirrel. However, this species is locally abundant throughout their range and currently it is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.

Ecological niche

The Arctic ground squirrel is a keystone species, with top-down as well as bottom–up impacts on local ecological processes. They act as an important food source for numerous mammals and birds. They are also important as soil engineers, as, in digging their burrows, they help turn over and aerate the soil, bringing nutrients up to the surface.

Fun facts for kids

  1. Inhabitants of Alaska call Arctic ground squirrels "parka" (pronounced "par'kee") squirrels, probably because their coats are used for the ruff on a parka, and for clothing.
  2. These squirrels are very vocal and are referred to as "tsik-tsik" by the Alaskan Inupiat Eskimos, due to the sounds they make.
  3. Inside the burrow of the Arctic ground squirrel is a hibernation chamber, spherical in shape and slightly flattened, and lined with fur, dry grasses, moss and sedges. This chamber is insulated so well that when it is freezing outside, the inside temperature is around 20 degrees Celsius more than the temperature outside.
  4. “Spermophilus”, the generic name of the Arctic ground squirrel, means “lover of seeds.”
  5. Most people from Yukon call this animal a “gopher”.
  6. To stay hidden from sight, the Arctic ground squirrel does the "tundra glide", pressing its body flat against the ground.

References

  1. Arctic Ground Squirrel Wikipedia article
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arctic_ground_squirrel
  2. Arctic Ground Squirrel on The IUCN Red List site
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/20488/0