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Ground squirrels use neighborhood watch to stay safe

Ground squirrels use neighborhood watch to stay safe

Buzzard's luck

It could be hard to sneak up on a Barbary ground squirrel.

These small animals that resemble chipmunks live in large groups in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. Their homes are in underground burrows. They come out of their holes to look for food like roots, fruit and seeds. That’s when they are most at risk.

They are on the lookout for predators like cats and buzzards.

To reduce the chance they will be eaten, the squirrels try to remain alert, constantly watching their surroundings and the sky. About one-third of the time they do this on their own, but about 40% of the time they have company. If a predator is spotted, more than half will stop what they are doing to watch. If there is danger they make an alarm call and scramble for protection in holes or rock walls.

Unlike some other ground squirrels, the scientists found the Barbary squirrels will climb trees. They seem to like being up high so they could see farther.

Other species like meerkats take turns being on the lookout, while animals like boars and kangaroos all stay alert, similar to the ground squirrels. Scientists call this behavior synchronous vigilance.

Synchronous means something that happens at the same time. Vigilance means being watchful for danger.

Scientists at the University of Cincinnati studied the animals and published their research in a scientific journal.

“They’re pretty cute,” said scientist Annemarie van der Marel who studied the squirrels for three winters. “People had them as pets, and that’s how they were introduced to the Canary Islands in 1965.”

— Brett French,


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