Many people say that squirrels are basically rats that were handed a better deal in terms of cuteness. While I agree that squirrels are much cuter than rats, the question remains, “How different are they?” It turns out that rats and squirrels belong to completely different animal Families but they are related in that they are both Rodents. Here is a look at some similarities and differences between these animals.
Squirrels and rats are distinct Families both belong to the largest Order of Mammals, Rodentia. All Rodents have specialized teeth for gnawing that constantly are growing. Both Families exhibit intelligence, problem solving and memory. Other than their teeth and mental capacities squirrels and rats have little in common in terms of behavior, life cycle and impact on humans.
Squirrels and Rats Are Mammals
Rats and squirrels belong in the animal Class Mammalia and are further classified as members of the Order Rodentia. Here is a look at how the species are scientifically classified. They animals are the same until separation at the Family level.
There are approximately 5000 different Species of mammals that are placed into 26 different Orders. The Rodentia Order is far and away the largest Order and contains over 40% of all of the mammalian species.
All Rodents Must Gnaw
The defining characteristic of a Rodent are the specialized front incisor teeth in the upper and lower jaws that are constantly growing. The name “Rodent” comes from Latin and means “to gnaw”. All rodents must constantly gnaw on hard materials to keep their teeth ground down and sharpened.
This is a big reason why you do not want to have squirrels or rats in your attic as they will chew on anything they can find, including electrical lines. These animals will evenly gladly chew through aluminum in an effort to keep their teeth in check.
Rodents Are Smart
Rats are very smart animals which is one reason that psychological researchers like to use them for behavioral studies. It is relatively easy to train a rat to run a maze and then shift their behavior with different rewards, etc.
Similarly there have been many studies on squirrel intelligence with several studies indicating that squirrels have excellent memories. As anyone who has ever put up a squirrel proof bird feeder will tell you, squirrels are extremely smart and determined!
What Is Different Between Squirrels and Rats?
While squirrels and rats share many physical and mental characteristics their behaviors, communications and life cycles are extremely different.
Diurnal vs. Nocturnal Habits
This is perhaps one of the most distinct differences between a rat and a squirrel. Squirrels are diurnal by nature, which means that they are primarily active during the day. Rats, on the other hand, are nocturnal creatures and are active during the night. Flying squirrels are the sole exception to this as they are nocturnal in nature.
If you have been hearing noises in your attic lately and can’t figure out whether it’s a squirrel or a rat, then the time of activity should help you guess. Squirrels are rarely active during the night so if you hear a lot of movement during this time, then you are most likely dealing with a rat.
Squirrels and rats are diurnal and nocturnal in nature due to their anatomical characteristics. Squirrels possess excellent daytime vision. Their focal vision is very sharp. Squirrels are also equipped with excellent peripheral vision. This allows a squirrel to protect itself from predators and hunt for food more effectively during the day. Their nighttime vision is very poor (except for flying squirrels) and being active during the night would expose them to several dangers.
Rats are the opposite. They have very poor eyesight and rely on their facial whiskers for navigation. These whiskers act as touch sensors. Rats use them to navigate by moving them back and forth. This process is known as whisking. It allows a rat to avoid colliding with foreign objects while it moves around in the dark.
Squirrels and rats also differ in terms of their reproductive habits. Squirrels will usually mate twice a year and produce two litters. These are born towards the end of spring and at the end of summer. The litter size usually consists of 5 to 6 offspring. The gestation period in squirrels can be between 30 days (California ground squirrel) or 44 days (Eastern grey squirrel). In the case of the California ground squirrel, sexual maturity is reached at 12 months. The offspring of the Eastern grey squirrel take 15 months to reach sexual maturity.
Rats are more sexually active compared to squirrels. A female rat can give birth to 6 litters every year. The litter size consists of 5 to 12 offspring. The gestation period in rats lasts for 21 to 23 days (Laboratory Norway Rat) or 21 to 24 days (Wild-caught Norway rat). Unlike squirrels, rats only require 2 to 4 months to reach sexual maturity. This means that they reproduce at a much faster rate than squirrels. In fact, a pair of rats can produce a billion descendants within three years.
Squirrels tend to live a lot longer than rats. The house rat usually has the lifespan of a year in the wild. They can live up to 4 years in captivity. The Norway rat also has a typical lifespan of 2 years in the wild. They can live up to 1.5 to 3.5 years in the wild.
Squirrels, on the other hand, have varying lifespans that differ according to the species and type of squirrel. The Red squirrel lives up to five years in the wild. In captivity, its lifespan increases to 8 years. The Eastern fox squirrel has a lifespan of 8 in the wild and up to 18 years in captivity. Eastern grey squirrels also have an impressive lifespan living up to 12 years in the wild and 20 years in captivity.
Habits and Lifestyle
Rats and squirrels also differ in terms of their habits and lifestyles.
Rats do not hibernate during the winter. They may showcase lower levels of activity during the cold, but they are generally active throughout the year. Squirrel hibernation patterns vary according to the species. Red squirrels, Eastern grey squirrels, and some ground squirrel species do not hibernate in the winter. On the other hand, the thirteen-lined ground squirrel and the Arctic ground squirrel hibernate during winter. These squirrels employ sophisticated mechanisms such as supercooling (in the case of Arctic ground squirrels) to survive during hibernation. They also undergo physiological changes while hibernating. In the case of the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, this squirrel type may not process cold temperatures like other warm-blooded animals do.
Rats and squirrels also differ in terms of communication. Rats tend to communicate via ultrasound frequencies that are inaudible to the human ear. If a rat produces a sound that is audible to humans, then it is usually because the rat is under stress or expressing pain.
Squirrels, on the other hand, communicate through a variety of sounds that are audible to the human ear. These sounds usually work as alarm calls and are used by squirrels when they sense a predator in the area.
The sounds produced by squirrels vary across species. The California ground squirrel, for instance, will produce whistles, chatters, and chats. Richardson’s ground squirrels communicate through whistles and chirps. Palm squirrels produce soft tooth chatters, loud chucks, and a short and loud staccato bark. North American red squirrels produce barks, seets, and seet-barks in response to predators. The Eastern grey squirrel also produces 6 types of sounds. These are kuks, buzzes, quaas, buzz-quaas, moans, and modulated quaas and quaa-moans.
These alarm calls tend to be predator-specific. They also differ in terms of urgency.
To Sum It Up
There are several major differences between rats and squirrels and they vary considerably in terms of their lifestyle, habits, and anatomical characteristics.