Very few animals draw such vastly different emotional reactions from people than squirrels. Some people think squirrels are absolutely adorable and love to feed and nurture them. Other people think squirrels are rodents like rats but with fluffy tails.
Part of the love/hate relationship with squirrels concerns where exactly they fall in the animal kingdom. Almost everyone HATES rats and we are taught early on that rodents should be avoided. But what about our furry tailed tree squirrels?
“Are Squirrels Rodents Like Rats?”
Squirrels are absolutely rodents. While squirrels are rodents there are five SubOrders in the Rodentia class and squirrels and rats are in different SubOrders. This means that rats and squirrels are loosely related but are separate species that cannot interbreed.
Are Squirrels Rodents or Mammals?
Squirrels are both Mammals and Rodents. This is not an uncommon situation in the animal world as approximately 40% of all mammals in the are rodents (source).
Here is a look at how squirrels are scientifically classified.
The graphic above is highly condensed and omits many other Orders, Families, etc.
What Qualifies as a Rodent?
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 incisors ground down and sharpened.
Rodents typically share other characteristics such as small body size coupled with a long tail. Rodents have a digestive system that produces hard, dry fecal pellets and prevents them from being able to vomit.
Is a Squirrel Just a Rat With a Fuzzy Tail?
While squirrels and rats (or mice) are both rodents they are completely different animal species. So, no, is squirrel is NOT just a cute rat.
Rats and squirrels cannot interbreed. The two species also have striking differences in behavior, lifestyle and communication.
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 vs Rats Reproductive Habits
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. (source).
Lifespan of Squirrels and Rats
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.
Squirrels vs Rats: 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 vs Squirrels: Communication and Noises
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.
Squirrel and Rat Feces
As much as I don’t want to, we must take a minute to talk about feces. Yes, poop.
Squirrel and rat feces are actually a lot alike and there’s really no reason to learn the differences unless you get an infestation. Unfortunately, there might come a time when you realize that you are sharing your home with a pest but, before you call the pest control company, you can do a little investigating on your own.
Both rat and squirrel droppings are dark brown or black. However, there is a slight difference in the shape of the feces.
Rat droppings are spindle-shaped. Squirrel feces may also be spindle-shaped or they may appear clumped, depending primarily on the moisture content of their food source (source).
Rats vs Squirrels Quick Facts
There are several major differences between rats and squirrels and they vary considerably in terms of their lifestyle, habits, and anatomical characteristics. However, they are similar in many ways too!
Here are a few interesting facts about rats and squirrels:
- Rats and squirrels both have sharp claws.
- Rats and squirrels build nests.
- Both rats and squirrels enjoy eating bird eggs, nuts, grains, insects and anything you put in a bird feeder!
- Beware, rats and squirrels both carry fleas.