At first glance, the title of this article might seem to be rather silly. After all, squirrels and chipmunks are two different animals, right? Although that is technically true, things aren’t quite as simple as that.
It is actually quite easy to confuse ground squirrels with chipmunks, and many people have made this mistake. There isn’t a simple division between one and the other, however. The difference between these animals is mainly a matter of taxonomy: That is to say, it’s all in the names.
Are Ground Squirrels and Chipmunks Different?
In a way, chipmunks and ground squirrels actually are the same. You see, when someone refers to “ground squirrels”, they are not just referring to a single species. That term refers to a number of different creatures, all of whom belong to the squirrel family (known as Sciuridae).
Most of us are far more familiar with the tree-dwelling squirrels, such as the American red squirrel or the eastern grey squirrel. These creatures belong to a genus of squirrels known as Sciurus or Tamiasciurus. Ground squirrels belong to a different subfamily called Xerinae. Within the Xerinae subfamily, there are 26 genus groups that make up the ground squirrel population.
Chipmunks are members of the squirrel family, but they are placed in three different genus groups called Tamias, Eutamias, and Neotamias. Throughout history, people have recognized that chipmunks are a lot like squirrels (only smaller). The word “chipmunk” actually comes from a Native American word that means “red squirrel.” For reference, we are referring to the word “Jidmoonh” from the language of the Ottawa tribe.
Not The Same, But Closely Related And Very Similar
So, in the end, we have this answer: Chipmunks and ground squirrels are not quite the same, but they are closely related.
They both belong to the same family of rodents, so it isn’t surprising that people have often confused them. However, those who say they are the same are not totally wrong. Technically, anything in the Xerinae subfamily could reasonably be called a ground squirrel. This subfamily includes a tribe called Marmotini, and this group contains both chipmunks and marmots.
Thus, we can see that a chipmunk is basically just a miniature marmot. Since a marmot is basically just a big ground squirrel, you can see that all these animals are connected.
Differences Between Chipmunks And Squirrels
Although scientific naming has made this issue a bit more confusing, there are also clear differences between chipmunks and squirrels.
First, we can see that the squirrel has a larger tail in proportion to the rest of its body. Squirrel tails are also “bushier”, while a chipmunk tail looks more like that of a rat or mouse (aside from the fur, of course). Since a squirrel spends so much of its life in trees, balance is vitally important to its survival. That large, heavier tail helps to provide the necessary counterbalance to keep squirrels from falling. Squirrels can even use this tail as a means of defense.
Chipmunks, on the other hand, are mostly ground dwellers and do not require such help.
Other physical differences involve the shape of the ears and striping as detailed in this article, Squirrels vs Chipmunks.
Big Differences In Behavior
There are also clear differences in lifestyle. While squirrels can rely on the trees for protection, chipmunks generally do not. Interestingly, chipmunks are known to be very good climbers, so they could probably live in the trees if they so desired. However, their instincts compel them to dig burrows in the dirt for protection. They climb trees to find food, but they generally don’t live there. Chipmunk burrows can often be very complex and show a considerable degree of intelligence in their design.
However, perhaps the biggest difference between ground squirrels and chipmunks can be seen in their social behaviors. Despite their similar appearances, these two species are worlds apart when it comes to sociability. Chipmunks are generally solo animals, coming together only for mating or other specific purposes. A chipmunk burrow (sometimes called a den) will normally house just one animal.
On the other hand, ground squirrels are known for their complex social habits. The males and females tend to live in separate groups, coming together when the females go into heat. However, one group of ground squirrels can include as many as 10-15 individuals, and they don’t tend to fight with each other very much. With most species, you would expect the males to start fighting when the females go into heat, but that isn’t the case with ground squirrels. Thus, they are far more sociable than chipmunks.
Similarities And Differences In Hibernation Behaviors
Apart from having a similar appearance, there are many important similarities between chipmunks and ground squirrels. Both of them have a tendency to store food in the pouches of their cheeks and “stash” the excess for later.
The difference, however, lies in the reasons for which they stash food. Chipmunks do not fully hibernate during the winter, so they have to stash enough food to last them through the entire season. Ground squirrels, on the other hand, do hibernate for the entire winter, so they don’t have to create a stash. Instead, they just eat as much as they possibly can before winter, giving them enough fat to survive until they wake in the spring.
After reading the above, you can probably understand why some people have a hard time telling ground squirrels and chipmunks apart. When you try to research the subject, it can be hard to understand the differences between them. This is one of those areas in which scientific terminology can easily confuse the average person.
However, what you need to know is this: Chipmunks and ground squirrels belong to several of the same groupings, but they are certainly not the same thing.