Since the 1980s, researchers have generally agreed that squirrels’ social structures are determined primarily by the females’ tendency to occupy a given territory. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Mammalogy, scientists took a closer look at the lives of Barbary ground squirrels to find out if they also exhibited this behavior.
The researchers expected that, if the Barbary squirrels follow the behavioral patterns shown in other species of ground-dwelling squirrels in Africa, then the females would be “philopatric” (the ones who determine where the group lives) and males would be the dispersing sex, who must leave their family territories once they become adults to live alone or in all-male groups.
Although the Barbary ground squirrel is native to Morocco and parts of Algeria, this study focused on an invasive population in the Canary Islands. The squirrels were live-trapped and marked for later identification, then released and observed through binoculars from morning to night. The relative stability of female and male groups was also measured by closely watching which individuals shared burrows each night, among other techniques that measured home range size and genetic relatedness.
After spending about three breeding seasons with the squirrels, the research team had their answers. They concluded that the Barbary ground squirrels' social organization was just as they predicted. Interestingly, though, adult male and female squirrels share the same spaces during the day, but sleep separately at night.
In general, these squirrels were found to be far more gregarious (social) than initially thought, with surprising communal behavior from even lactating and nursing females. As the only living species in the genus Atlantoxerus — and an invasive one at that — the Barbary squirrel can now be better managed in areas where they are considered invasive and may endanger other wildlife.