Have you ever been hiking in the summertime and suddenly seen a flash of gold that disappears almost in thin air? If so, it’s likely that you have come across a ground squirrel, a golden-mantled ground squirrel, in fact. Were you able to see where the flash disappeared to? Unless you are especially observant, you may not have noticed an partially hidden opening to an underground burrow. Ground squirrels get their names from where they live—underground!
If you have ever heard the phrase “Mother Earth,” it certainly applies to many animals, as earth gives them underground shelter and safety from their predator enemies and provides soil without which there would be no food nor aboveground cover. Some animals dig their own burrows, some take over deserted ones, and some cohabitate, invited or not. Some common animals directly utilizing tunnels beneath the surface include mammals: voles (meadow mice), groundhogs, marmots (also known as rockchucks), badgers, beavers, weasels, moles, chipmunks, prairie dogs, gophers; Birds: burrowing owls; amphibians: crayfish or crawdads; Reptiles: snakes. .
Ground squirrels are fairly common in western North America. The common ground squirrel genus formerly known as Spermophilus has recently been divided into eight (8) genera, one of which is called Callospermophilus,* to which the golden mantled ground squirrels belong. There are three recognized species, Callospermophilus lateralis with 13 subspecies, C. madrensis, and C. saturatus with one subspecies, each. The name Callospermophilus is derived as follows: kallos from Greek meaning beauty, spermatos for seed, and phileo for love. All ground squirrels are true hibernators and disappear in the fall until March or April. They live in nests located in underground burrows and may store food for consumption as hibernation ends in the springtime.
The golden mantled ground squirrel Spermophilus lateralis is probably the easiest of all ground squirrels to identify. It has a white stripe running from its hind quarters to its front quarters bordered by a black stripe. The white stripe does not continue across the side of the face as do chipmunk stripes. This squirrel is found in 11 of the westernmost U.S. states and extends into Alberta, Canada, but not into Mexico.
Molly Bartels and Doug Thompson** wrote a nice summary of the golden mantled ground squirrel, its habits, habitat, reproduction, range and distribution, etc.
Breeding season begins shortly after emergence from hibernation in the spring, and two to eight young are usually born in July after an average gestation period of 30 days. They may live up to five years in captivity and seven or more in natural habitats.
Golden squirrels prefer sunny habitats and inhabit forested or sparsely brushy territory, recently burned forests and sometimes even in sagebrush or meadows. They are usually silent, but can make several kinds of calls. These squirrels are omnivores, that is, they will consume both flesh and plants. Normal food includes herbaceous plants and pine nuts. When eating, these squirrels will customarily sit on their haunches and manipulate food with their forefeet, a fun photographing opportunity. In the fall, these squirrels store fat for survival during long winter hibernations. Food and even bedding materials may be packed into their cheeks pouches for transport to their nests. Natural enemy predators include badgers, coyotes, bobcats, skunks, weasels and hawks. They are inadverdant hosts to several kinds of parasites including fleas, ticks, sandflies, protozoans and bacteria.
* Helgen, K.M., K.M. Cole, L.E. Helgen and D.E. Wilson. 2009. Journal of Mammalogy, 90(2):270-305. ** Mammalian Species (American Society of Mammalogists publication), 1993, No. 440.