African ground squirrels look a bit like squirrels. But they are significantly larger and their fur feels very hard. That’s where her name comes from.
What do ground squirrels look like?
Ground squirrels have the typical squirrel shape and a long, bushy tail. This serves as a parasol: you hold it in such a way that it shades your body. The shaggy, hard coat is grey-brown or cinnamon brown to beige-grey, the belly and inside of the legs are light gray to whitish.
African ground squirrels measure 20 to 45 centimeters from the snout to the bottom, plus the 20 to 25-centimeter long tail. However, the four species are slightly different in size: the striped ground squirrel is the largest, Cape ground squirrels and Kaokoveld ground squirrels are only a few centimeters smaller. The smallest is the ground squirrel. Depending on the species and sex, the animals weigh 300 to 700 grams. The females are usually slightly larger and heavier than the males.
Cape ground squirrels, Kaokoveld ground squirrels, and striped ground squirrels are quite similar: they all have a white stripe down either side of their bodies. Only the ground squirrel lacks this drawing. The eyes of all species have a strong white eye-ring, but this ring is not as prominent in the Kaokoveld ground squirrel.
As with all rodents, two incisors are formed into incisors in the upper jaw. These grow back for a lifetime. Ground squirrels have long whiskers, so-called vibrissae, on their snouts. They help the animals to find their way around. The ears are tiny, pinnae are missing. The legs are strong and the feet have long claws with which the animals can dig well.
Where do African ground squirrels live?
As their name suggests, African ground squirrels are only found in Africa. The Cape ground squirrel lives in southern Africa, the Kaokoveld ground squirrel in Angola and Namibia. These two species are the only ones whose ranges overlap. The striped ground squirrel is at home in West and Central Africa, the ground squirrel in East Africa.
African ground squirrels like open habitats like savannas and semi-deserts where there are not too many trees. However, they also inhabit sparse bushland and rocky habitats in the mountains.
What types of ground squirrels are there?
African ground squirrels not only resemble our squirrel, but they are also related to it: they also belong to the squirrel family and the rodent order. There are four different species of African ground squirrel: the Cape ground squirrel (Xerus injuries), the Kaokoveld or Damara ground squirrel (Xerus princeps), the striped ground squirrel (Xerus erythropus), and the plain ground squirrel (Xerus rutilus).
How old do African ground squirrels get?
It is not known how old African ground squirrels can get.
How do African ground squirrels live?
African ground squirrels are diurnal and – unlike our squirrels – only live on the ground. They live in colonies in underground burrows that they dig themselves. This is where the animals retreat to rest and sleep and find shelter from both their enemies and the extreme heat at midday. In the morning they leave their burrow and warm up in the sun before going out in search of food.
The Cape ground squirrels build the largest burrows. They consist of a widely branched system of long tunnels and chambers. Such a maze can extend up to two square kilometers and have up to a hundred exits! The dens of the Kaokoveld ground squirrel are smaller and simpler, they only have two to five entrances. Female ground squirrels defend their burrow against conspecifics who do not belong to their colony.
Meerkats sometimes live in the burrows of ground squirrels. While these small predators usually prey on ground squirrels, when they move into the burrow as roommates, they leave the ground squirrels alone. The meerkats even help the ground squirrels because they kill snakes that can be dangerous for the squirrels in their burrows.
Not much is known about the behavior of ground squirrels. But we know that the animals warn each other. When they spot an enemy, they emit shrill warning calls. As a result, all members of the colony quickly hide in the burrow.
Females and males live in separate colonies. In the case of the Cape ground squirrels, five to ten, rarely up to 20 animals form a colony. The colonies of Kaokoveld ground squirrels and ground squirrels are smaller and usually consist of only two to four animals. In all species, the females live permanently with their young in a colony. The males, on the other hand, keep moving from one colony to another. They only keep the females’ company during the mating season. Then they got their own way again.
Friends and foes of the ground squirrel
African ground squirrels have numerous enemies. For example, they are hunted by raptors and predatory mammals such as jackals and zebra mongooses. Snakes are also very dangerous for squirrels.
In South Africa, the ground squirrels are not popular with some farmers because they eat grain and crops in addition to wild plants. They can also transmit diseases, including rabies.
How do ground squirrels reproduce?
For cape and ground squirrels, the mating season is year-round. Mating of the striped ground squirrels usually takes place in March and April.
About six to seven weeks after mating, a female gives birth to one to three, a maximum of four young. Babies are born naked and blind. They remain in the burrow for about 45 days and are cared for and suckled by their mother. The offspring are independent at around eight weeks.
How do ground squirrels communicate?
In addition to shrill warning calls, African ground squirrels also make other sounds to communicate with each other.