Sciurus – Tree squirrels

The common, bushy-tailed squirrels that live in Europe, North America, temperate Asia, and Central & South America

These sprightly creatures, often observed scampering across gardens, parks, and forests, derive their name from the Greek words “Skia,” meaning shadow, and “our,” meaning tail. This nomenclature beautifully captures one of the tree squirrel’s most charming behaviors: its tendency to curl its fluffy tail over its head as if seeking solace in its shadow. This distinctive trait provides them with shade and serves as a protective mechanism against predators and the elements.

Belonging to a family that includes chipmunks, marmots, and prairie dogs, tree squirrels share a close kinship with these other rodents, and each group adapted to its niche in the ecosystem. Tree squirrels are predominantly arboreal, meaning they have evolved to live in trees. Their physical adaptations, including sharp claws and powerful hind legs, enable them to navigate the vertical world of forests with agility and grace. These adaptations facilitate behaviors such as climbing, leaping, and, in the case of certain species, gliding.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating adaptations within this genus is observed in the flying squirrels, which do not fly but glide between trees. These species have developed a membrane, often called “false wings,” stretching between their front and hind legs. When extended, this membrane allows them to glide gracefully through the air for distances up to several hundred feet, from one tree canopy to another. This ability not only aids in foraging and escaping predators but also in finding mates across the vast expanse of the forest.

Tree squirrels inhabit diverse environments and are found on every continent except Antarctica and Oceania. This widespread distribution underscores their adaptability to various habitats, from dense tropical forests to urban parks and gardens. Despite their small size, tree squirrels play a significant role in their ecosystems. They are key in forest regeneration processes as they forget where they bury some of their nuts and seeds, leading to the growth of new plants and trees.