Arctic Ground Squirrels
Spermophilus parryii

The Inupiaq people call this animal a tsik-tsik for the sound it makes when alarmed (which is most of the time.) We usually see Arctic Ground Squirrels at a distance, as they chirp-chirp with annoyance, then duck into a burrow. The first photo is an example of this, seen along the Gold Cord trail in Hatcher Pass, Independence Mine Park. I was not able to approach that one (and many others like it) any closer. Back at the parking lot by the Independence Mine Visitor Center, there were friendlier squirrels, probably used to accepting tidbids from tourists. The other three photos are of one of these parking lot critters, who allowed me to get much closer.

(Click on any of the photos for a full-screen version.)

Range:
Arctic Ground Squirrels are the largest of North America's ground squirrels (up to 14"), and the only species that lives in Alaska. In addition to Alaska, it ranges across the northern provinces of Canada, to Baffin Island, and into eastern Siberia. Arctic Ground Squirrels are abundant on alpine or arctic tundra throughout Alaska. They are a prey species for many other animals, including bears, wolves, owls and eagles. Humans have also used them for meat and fur in the past. So perhaps their state of constant alarm is understandable.

Diet:
Arctic Ground Squirrels eat mostly plant matter (seeds, fruits, flowers, roots, leaves, mushrooms,etc.) but will include insects and small animals in the diet too.They nearly double their weight during the summer to prepare for a long hibernation in the winter, which can last for up to seven months.

Hibernation:
They line their burrows with grasses, and cover the openings to protect themselves during hibernation. However, because of the severe conditions where they live, temperatures in the burrows can still drop to 0º F. Their body temperature can drop to 26-27ºF without causing the animal any harm. This is the lowest body temperature of any mammal. During the summer, the body temperature is 98.6ºF.

Reproduction:
The squirrels emerge from hibernation when conditions permit, usually in April. Mating occurs in May, and babies are born in June. The pups are tiny at birth, only about 10 grams, but they grow very fast and are weaned at about six weeks. They have to get large and fat enough to survive hibernation in only five months.

Taxonomy:
Kingdom: Animal
Class: Mammalia (animals that suckle young with milk)
Order: Rodentia (gnawing mammals)
Family: Sciuridae (squirrels, "scurrying" rodents)
Genus: Spermophilus (seed eaters, includes other ground squirrels)
Species: parryii (named for famed Arctic explorer, William Parry)

Copyright 2004 Mary Hopson
If you wish to use photos or text from this webpage, please contact the author.

 

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