Arctic ground squirrel (Spermophilus parryii)

Synonyms: Citellus buxtoni, Citellus eversmanni janensis, Citellus parryi tshuktschorum, Citellus stejnegeri, Citellus undulatus coriakorum, Spermophilus brunniceps, Spermophilus leucosticus
GenusSpermophilus (1)
SizeHead-body length: 21.5 - 25 cm (2)
Tail Length: 7.5 - 15 cm (2)
Male weight: 700 g (3)
Female Weight: 635 g (3)

The Arctic ground squirrel is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

One of the largest species of ground squirrel (2), the Arctic ground squirrel (Spermophilus parryii) is, as its common name suggests, ground-dwelling (4). The only ground squirrel to inhabit the harsh, extreme environment of the Arctic (2), the Arctic ground squirrel is therefore easily differentiated from other species of ground squirrel by its more northerly range (5).

The Arctic ground squirrel has brown fur interspersed with white spots, except for the underside which is typically off-white. This species moults twice a year, with the pelage being typically more reddish-brown, soft and fine in spring, and grey-brown, stiff and thick as winter approaches (4) (5) (6). The Arctic ground squirrel has a cylindrical body with short forelimbs and longer hindlimbs, which are adapted to digging and moving quickly. It also has soft pads on the soles of its feet, which provide excellent grip (4) (7).

The Arctic ground squirrel has large eyes surrounded by light-coloured rings, which give it a broad field of vision thus making potential threats easier to see. It has touch-sensitive whiskers around its mouth, as well as on its head and legs (4) (7). Its bushy tail, which is relatively short for a squirrel, is used as a balance when it runs and jumps, and also as a ‘blanket’ while sleeping (4) (8). The male Arctic ground squirrel is larger than the female (6) (7).

The puffed-out appearance of the Arctic ground squirrel’s cheeks is due to membranous cheek pouches, in which it is able to carry food. As in other ground squirrels, this species has abrasive, rooted ‘cheek teeth’ for grinding down food (4) (7).

The Inuit name for this species is ‘sik-sik’ due to the similar sound of its calls. All ground squirrels have a range of vocalisations, including screeching and rattling, the most outstanding being a shrill whistle used as an alarm to warn against predators. If an intruder persists, it will resort to chasing and physical combat (4) (5) (6) (8).

The Arctic ground squirrel has four recognised subspecies: Spermophilus parryii kodiacensis, Spermophilus parryii lyratus, and Spermophilus parryii nebulicola Spermophilus parryii osgoodi. The four subspecies differ mainly in the colour of the pelage and in the shape of the skull (9).

he Arctic ground squirrel is found in the Arctic regions of eastern Russia, and in North America. From Alaska in the west to Hudson Bay in the east, south to British Colombia. It has a wide distribution and is locally abundant in these areas (1) (3) (5) (9).

Subspecies S. p. kodiacensis, S. p. lyratus, S. p. nebulicola and S. p. osgoodi each occurring on a different Alaskan island (1).

The Arctic ground squirrel is found in Arctic tundra, open meadows, forest clearings, river valleys and meadow-steppes. It inhabits alpine and sub-alpine zones up to elevations of 1,400 metres, often being found on the outskirts of human settlements (1) (2) (6) (10).

The permafrost (permanently frozen ground) must be at least a metre below the surface of the ground so that it is able to build the extensive burrows it needs to survive (5) (6).

The diurnal Arctic ground squirrel lives in colonies consisting of a single dominant male, several females and young. It lives in an intricate system of burrows, with entrances placed under obstructions such as trees, rocks or logs, hiding it from predators (5) (8). Territories are established in spring, by the dominant male driving other males away (1) (7). The male will form a territory to gain access to sexually receptive females, food, favourable hibernation areas and to discourage other males from mating with the females within the area. A lactating female will defend the area surrounding its nursery to control food sources in the area and protect its young. The Arctic ground squirrel has scent glands which produce a scent to warn others away from its territory (7).

The Arctic ground squirrel hibernates for around seven months, from September to October until March or April, with the timing of emergence dependent on the climatic conditions outside the burrow (1) (2) (3) (4) (8). Within its burrow there will be hibernation chamber, which is slightly flattened and spherical in shape, and lined with dry grasses, fur, moss and sedges (4) (5). The chamber is so well insulated that in freezing conditions, the internal temperature is about 20 degrees Celsius higher than the temperature outside (4).

During hibernation, the body temperature of the Arctic ground squirrel is reduced to save energy, while its metabolism slows down to a third of the normal rate. The Arctic ground squirrel spends the months before hibernation accumulating food and fat on its body, as it typically loses around half its pre-hibernation weight throughout the winter months (4) (6) (8) (11).

An omnivorous species, the Arctic ground squirrel feeds mainly on insects, birds eggs and occasionally each other’s young throughout the spring, while berries, mushrooms, seeds, lichens and mosses are taken as winter nears (1) (4) (6) (8). Its diet is reflected in its genus name, ‘Spermophilus’, meaning ‘seed-loving’. While foraging for food to be eaten immediately, the Arctic ground squirrel will also forage for nuts and dry grass that can be stored for the winter months (1) (4).

Breeding occurs early in spring, to maximise the amount of time the pups have to gain weight before hibernation (4) (7). The paternity of the young will more than likely be the dominant male; however, if the male does not properly guard the female after mating, the female may mate again with a different male (3) (4).

The gestation period of the Arctic ground squirrel is three to six weeks, with the female producing one litter of six to eight young per year. Occasionally a litter may contain up to 14 young (1) (4) (7) (8). At birth, the Arctic ground squirrel has no fur or teeth and has skin covering its eyes. It develops rapidly, becoming independent after three to four weeks. Parental care is provided entirely by the female (4) (7).

The Arctic ground squirrel is hunted for its meat and skin for local trade (1) and Northern American Inuit tribes rely on the skins for clothing, boots and other items (11).

This species’ habitat is being degraded by increased agriculture and human expansion (1) (4). Droughts across its range are also a threat, although this may be due to natural change rather than human activity (1). It is also predated throughout its range by many carnivores (4).

All subspecies of Arctic ground squirrel are of conservation concern due to their restricted ranges (1).

There are no known conservation measures in place for the Arctic ground squirrel.

Find out more about the Arctic ground squirrel's habitat:

Find out more about the Arctic ground squirrel:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2011)
  2. Kurtén, B. and Anderson, E. (1980) Pleistocene Mammals of North America. Colombia University Press, New York.
  3. Wolff, J. and Sherman, P.W. (2007) Rodent Societies: An Ecological & Evolutionary Perspective. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  4. Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. Bowers, N., Bowers, R. and Kaufman, K. (2007) Kaufman Field Guide to Mammals of North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York.
  6. Kays, R.W. and Wilson, D.E. (2009) Mammals of North America. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  7. Feldhamer, G.A., Thompson, B.C. and Chapman, J.A. (2003) Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management and Conservation. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
  8. Nowak, R.M. (1994) Walker’s Mammals of the World. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
  9. Hafner, D.J. and Kirkland, G.L. (1998) North American Rodents: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
  10. Golley, F.B., Petrusewicz, K. and Ryszowski, L. (2009) Small Mammals: Their Productivity and Population Dynamics. Volume 5 of International Biological Programme Synthesis Series. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  11. Thorington, R.W. and Ferrel, K. (2006) Squirrels: the Animal Answer Guide. John Hopkins Univerisity Press, Baltimore, Maryland.