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Desert Diary
Mammals/Rock Squirrel


For obvious reasons, the desert habitat is off limits to tree squirrels, but not to ground squirrels. One of these ground-dwelling rodents—the Rock Squirrel—has the size and fluffy tail commonly associated with tree climbers. But in this case, the fluffy tail is used for balance as it leaps from rock to rock or climbs a perpendicular cliff-face. True to its name, it's almost always limited to rocky outcrops that will protect its burrows.

Although colonial, the breeding season brings forth a dominant male who drives off other males in breeding condition. Pregnant females and those with young protect their burrows from all adults.

The scientific name, Spermophilus variegatus, freely translated, means "variegated seed lover", but along with seeds, it also will enjoy fruit, buds, nuts, insects, even the occasional unwary small bird or mammal. The "variegated" part of the name refers to the pattern of black, white, and buff hairs arranged in a dappled or wavy pattern.

These personable rodents are not shy and frequently are seen in rocky neighborhoods—alas, occasionally as a victim of the automobile age.
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Listen to the Audio (mp3 format) as recorded by KTEP, Public Radio for the Southwest.


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio, University of Texas at El Paso.

image of Rock Squirrel, Spermophilus variegatus

A Rock Squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus) (composite image by A.H. Harris).



Since this account was written, the scientific name of the Rock Squirrel has changed to Otospermophilus variegatus.


Schmidt, D. H. 1999. Rock Squirrel / Spermophilus variegatus. Pp. 438-440, in The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals (D. E. Wilson and S. Ruff, eds). Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 750 pp.

Web Resources

Mammals of Texas, Online Edition.