Have you ever been confused between a chipmunk and a squirrel? I know I have. This is especially in the case of certain types of ground squirrels that have a stripes that are similar to chipmunks. However, there are some notable differences between ground squirrels and chipmunks. Let’s take a look at what these are:
Ground Squirrels vs. Chipmunks
Both ground squirrels and chipmunks belong to the Sciuridae family (squirrels). Chipmunks are, in fact, members of the ground squirrel tribe (Marmotini). This tribe consists of six types of genera. One of these is the genus Tamias. This is the genus that the chipmunk belongs to. The remaining 5 genera consist of other kinds of ground squirrels that are different from chipmunks.
When people use the term ground squirrels, they are usually referring to medium-sized ground squirrels. Large ground squirrels go by more specific names and consist of Prairie dogs. Some of the key differences between these medium-sized ground squirrels and chipmunks include:
There are 26 species of chipmunks. Twenty five of these are found in North America. The twenty-sixth species is found in Siberia and is referred to as the Siberian Chipmunk. North American chipmunks mainly reside in the forests of North America.
Ground squirrels are more widespread than chipmunks. They can be found in several regions such as North Central America, Canada, the mountains of west America, alpine meadows, northern Mexico, western Mexico, the deserts of southwest America, northern Africa, California, Washington, the woodlands of Africa, South Africa, Kazakhstan, Russia, and the Arctic.
Unlike chipmunks that prefer forests, most of these ground squirrels live in wooded hillsides, fields, and rocky outcrops. Ground squirrels are not prolific tree climbers but chipmunks are. However, like ground squirrels, they tend to live in burrows under the ground.
Here’s a video of a chipmunk atop a tree branch:
And here’s a video of a ground squirrel digging a burrow in the ground:
Different Sizes and Appearance
Chipmunks are considerably smaller in size as compared to ground squirrels. Their tails are bushier as compared to most ground squirrels.
They also vary in appearance in terms of stripes. The eastern chipmunk, for instance, bears seven stripes on its back. These stripes do not reach the head. In the case of the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, you will find 13 alternating stripes on its back. These also reach the head.
Ground squirrels also differ in terms of the color of their pelage. Their coats can be in colors of salt and pepper, olive gray and brown, reddish brown or grayish brown, black, and tawny. These colors depend upon the kind of species you are dealing with. Chipmunks are not that diverse in terms of color.
Chipmunks also have round ears that stand erect. Ground squirrels, on the other hand, have smaller ears that do not tend to stick out.
Different Habits and Lifestyles
Another difference between ground squirrels and chipmunks is the kind of lifestyle they lead. This includes feeding habits, defense tactics against predators, and hibernation patterns.
Both chipmunks and ground squirrels tend to hibernate. However, while most ground squirrels hibernate for several months, chipmunks tend to hibernate for a few days at a time before emerging to eat food.
Both kinds are omnivorous and will consume animal as well as vegetative matter. They are also known to be cannibals. However, in the case of ground squirrels, cannibalism usually occurs due to territory disputes, food, and females. There is no sufficient research available on cannibalism in chipmunks,.
Some ground squirrels, such as the California ground squirrels, are also sufficiently equipped to fight against predators such as rattlesnakes. This is because these ground squirrels are immune to rattlesnake venom and often end up attacking rattlesnakes. Infant ground squirrels are not so lucky as they lack the antidote required to neutralize a rattlesnake’s venom.
Chipmunks, on the other hand, are frequently targeted by snakes and do not possess the necessary defense required to fight off these predators. Both animals make use of a variety of sounds and alarm calls to communicate with their conspecifics. However, these sounds and alarm calls vary significantly across species and genera.
In the case of chipmunks, they tend to emit low sounds. They make clucking, twittering, and chipping noises. These noises vary according to whether they are used in response to a predator or while communicating with their conspecifics.
You can check out these videos of chipmunks as they communicate through different kinds of sounds:
Compared to chipmunks, ground squirrels communicate through whistles, chatters, and chats (California ground squirrels), whistles and chirps (Richardson’s ground squirrels), and chirps and churs (Wyoming ground squirrels).
The economic importance of ground squirrels also tends to be negative for humans. The Wyoming ground squirrel, for instance, plays host to fleas and helps transmit the Colorado tick fever virus and the bubonic plague. They are also considered to be agricultural pests.
On the other hand, some chipmunks like the Colorado chipmunk do not have a direct impact on the economic activities of humans. They also play an important role in caching seeds under the ground and assisting in the growth of plants that may find it difficult to germinate.
To Sum It Up
There are several differences between ground squirrels and chipmunks. From their appearance to their habitats, and finally their lifestyle choices, these members of the squirrel family differ significantly from each other. If you are ever looking to distinguish between a ground squirrel and a chipmunk, I suggest you go for the size. While other traits might still be hard to remember, remember that a chipmunk is considerably smaller in size compared to most ground squirrels.