There’s a surefire way to mildly annoy zoologist and University of Lethbridge professor Gail Michener, and it involves misrepresenting the Richardson’s ground squirrel.
For starters, Michener — who has studied them for 40 years — said that the tiny, burrowing creatures really are squirrels, and not gophers.
Which means you have likely spent your whole life being wrong.
“I realize it’s the vernacular name that’s used in the area,” Michener said on the Thursday edition of the Calgary Eyeopener.
“I think that [it] really goes back to the early settlers of the late 1800s and the early 1900s coming from western Europe, where the only sort of squirrels are the ones that live in trees and have big bushy tails.”
And that’s not the only factoid Michener has to share about the commonly — and perhaps, unfairly — dismissed rodent.
On Oct. 29, she gets to set the record straight: Michener is hosting a virtual talk called Love Them, Despise Them, Study Them: Perspectives on an iconic prairie animal.
Being a squirrel is more than having a tail
According to Michener, there are actually only two species of squirrel that live in trees in Alberta, while 11 species live on the ground.
And if they are tiny, they are called chipmunks; if they are medium-sized, they are ground squirrels. Any bigger than that, and it’s a marmot.
These squirrels that live on the ground are often mistaken for, well, not-squirrels, because they are without a big, bushy tail.
But there is more to being a squirrel than having a tail, Michener said — and furthermore, a tail is simply unnecessary for a squirrel that lives on the ground and not in trees, scampering from branch to branch.
However, those early western European settlers probably associated the Richardson’s ground squirrel with other burrowing animals, and deemed it a gopher.
“[The settlers] come out to the prairies, a whole novel environment, and they have these animals living on the ground. And so … they borrowed the word ‘gopher,'” Michener said.
“But ‘gopher’ actually has a multiplicity of uses. There are gopher tortoises, gopher snakes, pocket gophers … the thing that’s in common for all of these is, it refers to organisms that live in tunnels in the ground. So, it seems to have its root word in something that means honeycombing the soil, by digging burrows.”
Sir John Richardson
So if they’re actually called Richardson’s ground squirrels, where did the name come from?
It turns out they were actually named after Sir John Richardson, an Arctic explorer and British naval officer — which is pretty distinguished for a rodent.
He discovered them while on expeditions with the British Navy when sea ice blocked central parts of the Northwest Passage in winter.
“While they were waiting in the springtime for the rivers to thaw out so they could go up them, Richardson collected various specimens, sent them back to Britain, and they were named by scientists at the British Museum,” Michener said.
In spite of their dapper namesake, they are considered pests by some, and often blamed for tunnelling through pastures and destroying crops.
But Michener said this isn’t quite fair — farming and agriculture involves breaking the sod and destroying their food source.
“The plowing of the prairie only damages the very top part of the burrow systems. So they’ve still got their underground home to live in,” Michener said. “But now, they have no food except for what the farmers plant. So clearly, agriculture was in conflict with the ground squirrel.
“Ground squirrels had no choice but to eat the food that the farmers were planting because basically, the farmers had stolen all their food.”
Under our feet
Despite their perhaps unfair label as a pest, adult Richardson’s ground squirrels are only above ground for about four months of the year. The other eight months they are hibernating beneath it, Michener said.
Younger ground squirrels spend the most time above ground, growing and fattening up for their long sleep.
“They go [underground] at different times according to their age and sex,” she said.”The ones that you see in March are not the same individuals you’re seeing in, say, August or September.”
If human bodies sunk to even 15 degrees Celsius — what Michener estimated the soil temperature would be at a half-meter’s depth in July — they would be unable to survive.
These squirrels, however, sleep through temperatures that hover around zero degrees during the coldest months of winter.
“Their body temperature is simply tracking ambient temperature of the soil around them,” Michener said. “They just match the temperature of the soil that they’re hibernating in.”
Through the months of November through February it’s unlikely you’ll see any of the gophers — or rather — Richardson’s ground squirrels.