By FRANCIS SKALICKY, Missouri Department of Conservation
Species: Thirteen-lined ground squirrel
Scientific name: Spermophilus tridecemlineatus
Nicknames: Striped gopher
Claim to fame: In spring, groundhogs are the mammals that get most of the attention when they arouse from hibernation. However, they're not the only mammals ending their "winter sleep." Thirteen-lined ground squirrels are another of this region's "true hibernators." They emerge from hibernation in late March and are active until October. In summer, most people know these rodents as the small creatures that scurry across golf courses, parks and other open grassy areas.
Species status: Thirteen-lined ground squirrels are most common in the prairie regions of northern and western Missouri. Studies have shown the 13-lined ground squirrel has expanded its range in the central part of the continent as agriculture and some types of suburban development have cleared lands that were once timbered.
First discovered: The first taxonomic description of the 13-lined ground squirrel was written by the American naturalist Samuel Mitchell in 1821.
Family matters: Thirteen-lined ground squirrels belong to the mammal family Sciuridae, a group which includes groundhogs, prairie dogs, chipmunks and squirrels.
Length: 7 to 12 inches
Weight: 4 to 5 ounces (spring); 8 to 9 ounces (fall)
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Diet: A thirteen-lined ground squirrel's diet consists of animal and plant foods. Animal matter consists mostly of insects, particularly grasshoppers and the larvae of beetles, moths and butterflies. This insect intake is supplemented with mice, lizards and other small vertebrates. Seeds, fruits, nuts, roots and foliage of wild grasses and legumes make up the plant portion of their diets. Sometimes ground squirrels damage crops by digging up sprouting plants or eating ripening heads of grain. However, they also benefit farmers by feeding on mice and insect pests.
Distinguishing characteristics: The general color pattern of both sexes is a series of alternating light and dark stripes extending lengthwise from head to rump on the back and sides. As the name implies, there are usually 13 stripes (seven light and six dark), but individuals, on occasion, will have a few more or a few less. The animal can vocalize with a long, high, trilling whistle that, in alarm, changes to a short, sharp whistle.
Life span: Thirteen-lined ground squirrels have many predators (coyotes, hawks, owls, snakes and cats to name a few) so mortality is high. Five years is probably the maximum life span.
Habitat: Thirteen-lined ground squirrels prefer flat, open grasslands or other dry, open fields wherever cover is short. They have adapted well to the neatly cropped lawns around homes, golf courses and cemeteries. It can also be found along the mowed borders of many highways.
Life cycle: Unlike some animals that go into periods of winter inactivity, ground squirrels are true hibernators. This hibernation process starts in late summer or fall when they begin fattening up for winter. A ground squirrel nearly doubles its weight during fall feeding. Since no food is eaten while hibernating, this is key to survival. Ground squirrels lose between one-third and one-half of their weight during hibernation. In fall, they move into underground burrows and go into a torpid condition. Body temperature drops from a range of 86 to 106 degrees to 37 degrees F. Their heartbeat falls from 200 to 300 beats per minute to a rate as low as five beats per minute. Breathing drops from a rate of 50 times per minute to four times per minute.