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Red squirrel

Conservation status

Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)[1]

Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Family: Sciuridae
Genus: Sciurus
Subgenus: Sciurus
Species: S. vulgaris
Binomial name
Sciurus vulgaris

Linnaeus, 1758

Subspecies[2]
23 recognized, see text
Red squirrel range
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On Great Britain, Ireland, and in Italy—numbers have decreased drastically in recent years. This decline is associated with the introduction by humans of the eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) from North America[3][4]and habitat loss.[5] Due to this, without conservation the species could be extirpated from Great Britain by 2030.[6]

Description

The red squirrel has a typical head-and-body length of 19 to 23 cm (7.5 to 9 in), a tail length of 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 in), and a mass of 250 to 340 g (8.8 to 12.0 oz). Males and females are the same size. The red squirrel is somewhat smaller than the eastern grey squirrel which has a head-and-body length of 25 to 30 cm (10 to 12 in) and weighs between 400 and 800 g (14 oz and 1 lb 12 oz). The long tail helps the squirrel to balance and steer when jumping from tree to tree and running along branches, and may keep the animal warm during sleep.[7]

The red squirrel, like most tree squirrels, has sharp, curved claws to enable it to climb and descend broad tree trunks, thin branches and even house walls. Its strong hind legs enable it to leap gaps between trees. The red squirrel also has the ability to swim.[8]

The coat of the red squirrel varies in colour with time of year and location. There are several different coat colour morphs ranging from black to red. Red coats are most common in Great Britain; in other parts of Europe and Asia different coat colours co-exist within populations, much like hair colour in some human populations. The underside of the squirrel is always white-cream in colour. The red squirrel sheds its coat twice a year, switching from a thinner summer coat to a thicker, darker winter coat with noticeably larger ear-tufts (a prominent distinguishing feature of this species) between August and November. A lighter, redder overall coat colour, along with the ear-tufts (in adults) and smaller size, distinguish the Eurasian red squirrel from the American eastern grey squirrel.[9][10][11]

Distribution

Red squirrels occupy boreal, coniferous woods in northern Europe and Siberia, preferring Scots pine, Norway spruceand Siberian pine. In western and southern Europe they are found in broad-leaved woods where the mixture of tree and shrub species provides a better year round source of food. In most of the British Isles and in Italy, broad-leaved woodlands are now less suitable due to the better competitive feeding strategy of introduced grey squirrels.[12]

Reproduction

Mating can occur in late winter during February and March and in summer between June and July. Up to two litters a year per female are possible. Each litter usually contains three or four young, called kittens, although as many as six may be born.[13] Gestation is about 38 to 39 days. The young are looked after by the mother alone and are born helpless, blind and deaf. They weigh between 10 and 15  g. Their body is covered by hair at 21 days, their eyes and ears open after three to four weeks, and they develop all their teeth by 42 days. Juvenile red squirrels can eat solids around 40 days following birth and from that point can leave the nest on their own to find food; however, they still suckle from their mother until weaning occurs at 8 to 10 weeks.

During mating, males detect females that are in œstrus by an odor that they produce, and although there is no courtship, the male will chase the female for up to an hour prior to mating. Usually multiple males will chase a single female until the dominant male, usually the largest in the group, mates with the female. Males and females will mate multiple times with many partners. Females must reach a minimum body mass before they enter œstrus, and heavy females on average produce more young. If food is scarce breeding may be delayed. Typically a female will produce her first litter in her second year.

Life expectancy

Red squirrels that survive their first winter have a life expectancy of 3 years. Individuals may reach 7 years of age, and 10 in captivity. Survival is positively related to availability of autumn–winter tree seeds; on average, 75–85% of juveniles die during their first winter, and mortality is approximately 50% for winters following the first.

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