Squirrels are one of the most widespread mammals, found on most of the world’s continents, but surprisingly little is known about that aside from the basic facts. One of the most common questions is ‘how long do squirrels live’? This question doesn’t have a single answer, as there are more than 200 species across the globe and there are two different varieties of squirrel. Let’s dive in and find out more!
Where Do Squirrels Live?
Squirrels are a very common rodent, living in dozens of countries both wild and as pets. The only continents not inhabited by squirrels are Australia and Antarctica. There have been several unsuccessful attempts to introduce squirrels to Australia but to no avail. By the 1980’s, grey squirrels were extinct. Today, the only squirrels to live in Australia are found at Perth Zoo. Here they have a thriving group of palm squirrels but there have been no attempts to release them into the wild.
Fun fact: Scientists have so far discovered 289 squirrel species!
Most squirrel species prefer to live in forest or woodland areas where there is plenty of cover from predators and lots of nesting sites. There are two categories of squirrel specifically; ground squirrels and tree squirrels and they live different lives. When talking in broader terms, the squirrel family includes:
- Tree squirrels
- Flying squirrels
- Ground squirrels
- Prairie dogs
Ground squirrels are burrowing animals, digging out burrows and extensive tunnels much like a rabbit or a badger. They sleep, nest and rear their young underground and come to the surface to forage for food or to scout a new burrow site.
Tree squirrels spend most of their time in trees, where they can easily evade predators. They also build their nests in tree hollows where they are sheltered from the elements. Tree squirrels include flying species such as the southern flying squirrel native to North America. For squirrels the term ‘flying’ does not mean true flight but more wind gliding like sugar gliders. They have a thin webbed skin between their front and hide limbs that acts like a parachute.
How Long Do Squirrels Live?
The answer to this question depends on the individual species and where in the world they are found. If you have squirrels regularly visiting your backyard, it is quite likely that you have become quite attached to them and can even tell your visitors apart from one another.
Fun fact: Female squirrels live longer than males.
Grey and Red Squirrels
The most widespread and successful species is the eastern grey squirrel. The average age of a wild eastern grey squirrel is 6 years, but they can live as long as 10 or 11 years. Wild animals have to contend with harsh weathers, finding nutritional foods and avoiding predators. Many people keep grey squirrels as pets. Captive grey squirrels can live as long as 20 years if they are well cared for.
The smaller and more noticeable red squirrel has a similar life expectancy, but they are less likely to live that long. Since their burnt red coat makes them easier to spot, they have a higher predation rate than their grey cousins. Red squirrels are also susceptible to a disease that grey squirrels carry.
Black Giant and Indian Squirrels
The largest squirrel species is contended between the black giant squirrel and the Indian giant squirrel. Both have similar body weight between 1kg and 1.25kg but the Indian giant squirrel has the potential for a longer body and tail.
Black giants are found in Nepal, Vietnam and southern China and their lifespan in the wild is estimated to be around 10 years. Indian giants are thought to have a similar lifespan however, they are elusive animals and not much research has been gathered.
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The smallest species of squirrel is the Bornean least pygmy squirrel, also known as the African pygmy squirrel. These tiny critters measure no longer than 9cm in body length and weigh a miniscule 20g. for such a small animal they have a surprisingly long lifespan, with an average life expectancy of 5 years.
Breeding and Social Behaviour
When it comes to socialising, most squirrel species are solitary until the breeding season arrives. Males tend to have no part in the rearing of any offspring and will try to mate with as many females as possible within their territory.
Interestingly, play behaviour has been observed between unrelated individuals that live in close proximity to one another. Nevertheless, most play occurs between littermates and is learning based.
Squirrels typically have their breeding season in early spring as the females have a short gestational period. It is not uncommon for some squirrel species to breed twice in one year, with a second litter usually born in summer. Breeding happens during the most fruitful months for vegetation so that there is less risk of offspring starving to death.
Offspring must stay in the nest for the first few weeks as they are born naked and blind. It is at this age that they are most at risk of predation from animals finding their nest.
What Do Squirrels Eat?
Squirrels are not very fussy about what they eat and will forage for anything with nutritional value. This includes fruits and berries, nuts, plants, flowers, fungi and tree bark.
All species of squirrel are food hoarders. They will bury stores of food in several places. One store is always close to their preferred nest, but they will have other stores within their home range that are located near secondary nests used to rest or escape predators.
Squirrels often forget where they have stored food or do not return to their stores frequently enough. This is the biggest cause of successful tree growth in woodland areas. The nuts that squirrels bury will germinate and grow, often creating small clusters of tree saplings in areas where squirrel populations are high.
The more food a squirrel can eat, the more variety of food there is and the more nutritional value the food has, the longer a squirrel can live in the wild.
Predators and Threats
Squirrels are a prey species no matter where they live. Their biggest predators are bird species such as hawks, ospreys and eagles, as well as foxes, badgers, coyotes, snakes and lizards.
The main problem that squirrels face besides predation is habitat loss. Tree squirrels rely on woodland areas for nesting sites and breeding, whereas ground squirrels need undisturbed land to build their burrows. Logging and human expansion is a major concern for many squirrel species and this concern is worldwide.
Climate change is also an issue, with hotter summers and cold winters creating changes in food availability and breeding seasons.
In agricultural areas, squirrels are at risk of being caught in animal traps or being poisoned by farmers attempting to keep mice and rats away from their crops.
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