Richardson's Ground Squirrels

Introduction to Richardson's Ground Squirrels
(also known as gophers)

Richardson's ground squirrel

Although Richardson's ground squirrels are members of the squirrel family (Family Sciuridae, Order Rodentia, Class Mammalia), they are more often known by the colloquial name gopher in many parts of their geographic range.

 

Distribution map

 
Green shading indicates the geographic distribution of Richardson's ground squirrels in Canada and the USA.
Source: p. 430 in The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals
(eds. D. E. Wilson and S. Ruff)

Richardson's ground squirrels are native to the short-grass and mixed-grass prairies of North America, including portions of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba in Canada and parts of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota in the United States.

Richardson's ground squirrels are diurnal, obligate hibernators that spend substantial amounts of time in underground burrow systems, either sleeping or hibernating depending on the time of year. In the active season, they come above ground in daylight hours to forage on vegetation.

Each female can produce only one litter a year. The litter remains underground for a month after birth, during which time infants are entirely dependent on their mother's milk. Richardson's ground squirrels live in close-knit matriarchal groups. Daughters tend to remain close to their female relatives throughout life, whereas sons usually disperse away from the family group when a few months old.

litter of Richardson's ground squirrels
Newly emerged litter of Richardson's ground squirrels with their mother

Richardson's ground squirrels are not sexually mature until after their first hibernation season, when they are nearly one year old. Mortality in that first year of life is high; typically only about 35-45% of young females and 5-15% of young males survive to adulthood. Adult males rarely live to the age of 3 years, but some female Richardson's ground squirrels live to 4 years and, very occasionally, a few females survive for 5 or 6 years.

Settlement of the prairies and breaking of the land for agricultural purposes resulted in Richardson's ground squirrels being viewed as agricultural pests. Although only 20% of the original prairie remains and much time, effort, and money have been spent on controlling their numbers, Richardson's ground squirrels continue to survive in both urban and rural areas. Richardson's ground squirrels remain a key element of the prairie ecosystem; they serve as prey items for many predators and they create microhabitats for other organisms such as burrowing owls and bumblebees. Consequently, many people are interested in ensuring that Richardson's ground squirrels remain a part of the prairie landscape.

Since the 1990s, Richardson's ground squirrels have become popular pets around the world, particularly in Europe and Japan.  Because of superficial similarity in appearance between Richardson's ground squirrels and black-tailed prairie dogs, some pet-store owners mis-identify the species they are selling.  If you are planning to purchase either species from a pet store, consult a reliable source so you know how to distinguish between the species.  See Similar Species

Janeal Mick

 

 

 

Janeal Mick (B.Sc. University of Lethbridge, 2003) with a captive-born Richardson's ground squirrel.

Janeal was Dr. Gail Michener's research assistant from 2002 to 2005. She is currently employed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

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