Squirrels, Nature’s Gardeners
By Obiabin Onukwugha
Squirrels are members of the family Sciuridae, a family of mammals that includes small or medium-size rodents. The squirrel family includes tree squirrels, ground squirrels and flying squirrels.
Squirrels feed on fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Researchers say squirrels are more active in the autumn as they forage for food preparing for the coming winter months.
Described as nature’s gardeners, Squirrels have an important ecological role, especially in forest ecosystems. Their biggest contribution to the forest is in shaping plant composition.
They have a peculiar habit of taking seeds, which are their main source of nutrients, and burying them.
Different tribes in Nigeria have different names for this tiny but important animal. Igbos call it “Osa”, Hausa call it “kùréegée/kùrēgē while Yorubas call it “Okere”, with different prefixes for different species.
Squirrels love to feed on seeds, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. While they eat seeds and nuts, they have this peculiar habit of burying some of them for future consumption, a system called caching.
As they continuously do this, they find seeds and bury them throughout the environment for later, but their forgetfulness helps the ecosystem to thrive.
When they return to find the stored food they usually forget the spot, and the seeds or nuts they stored later sprout and grow into trees. After a considerable amount of time this caching leads to altering the composition of the forest.
New types of trees become present in the forest. Over a long length of time, the forest can even expand.
It is these activities that once put the Squirrel and the Tortoise at loggerheads.
According to a traditional folklore, once upon a time, the Tortoise owned a pineapple farm by the roadside. The pineapple farm was located beyond a stream and contained orange, mango, pineapple and other fruit trees.
Sometimes, the fruit on the trees would ripen and fall. Whenever the pineapples in Tortoise’s farm would ripen, Squirrel and her children would go to the farm to eat every ripe pineapple they could find.
The issue was not that they ate the pineapple, but they would go round the large farm and would take a bite out of every ripe pineapple.
As a result, the pineapples became unsellable and unacceptable as gifts because once any part of a ripe pineapple was eaten, the pineapple would emit a smell that allowed other animals to find it easily.
Tortoise noticed this and monitored those responsible. He later found out that Squirrel and her children were to blame. The Tortoise warned them to stop eating his pineapple and even enlisted the help of their neighbors in the matter, but Squirrel did not heed his advice.
As the problem got worse, Tortoise became angry and was prepared to fight her in order to keep her away from his farm.
However whenever Tortoise saw Squirrel on his farm, she was always on top of a palm tree, or some other tree that was impossible for Tortoise to climb. There was no way that Tortoise could engage Squirrel in a fight.
Regardless, Tortoise knew that he had to stop Squirrel and her children from eating his pineapples so he concluded that he would ask the local priest to curse anyone eating his pineapple.
When Squirrel heard of the news, she pleaded with Tortoise. Because of other animals who joined her plea, Tortoise forgave Squirrel.
However, the Tortoise did not spare her from the ‘talk-talk’, meaning that whenever Squirrel and her children passed through the stream, Tortoise would gather his friends and tell them what Squirrel and her children did to him. Squirrel was not happy about this. One day, she reminded Tortoise he had forgiven her but Tortoise always told her that while she was forgiven, she would continue to be the subject of gossip, and that she shouldn’t be annoyed when she heard him gossiping, or doing the ‘talk-talk.’
With time, the Squirrel became ashamed of the gossip. Sometimes, the pineapple would ripen and fall towards the road so that it caught the attention of passersby.
But although squirrel and her children passed through that road all the time, they stopped stealing Tortoise’s pineapple, not because they did not want to eat pineapple anymore but because they were afraid of ‘talk-talk,’ which Tortoise used as a deterrent against their wrongdoing.
Another important role of squirrels in the ecosystem is being a food source for other animals.
They hold a significant place in the natural food chain and are preyed on by several avian and mammalian predators such as owls, hawks, snakes, red foxes, gray wolves lynx and weasels.
Some predators like fishers and pine martins even chase squirrels longer distances through trees and bushes. In domestic settings, they can be a food source for cats and dogs too.
Squirrels are also determiners of a healthy forest. To determine the health of a forest ecosystem, and to measure how well it is doing, researchers take into account the population of tree squirrels there.
Demographics of squirrels are important indicators for a forest’s condition, and these can be studied to determine the impact of climate changes, global warming, logging, fires, and other events on forest habitats.
Squirrels gestation period last between 39 and 44 days and they give birth to live young ones. Baby squirrels are born blind and hairless and are dependent on their mother for at least six weeks.
Some squirrels may continue to nurse up to twelve weeks before weaning off and leaving the nest.
Maturity of a squirrel is reached around nine months, at which point adolescent squirrels leave their nests to find their own territories. In the wild, squirrels enjoy lifespans between 5 to 10 years.
However, their life span could be shorter due to diseases, human interaction, and predators.
Squirrels are among endangered species and therefore prohibited for illegal trading for most countries.
In Nigeria, the ENDANGERED SPECIES (CONTROL OF INTERNATIONAL TRADE AND TRAFFIC) ACT, of 1985, No 2, prohibits the trafficking of African Palm Squirrels.
The law provides that anyone illegally trading or exporting Squirrels or any other listed endangered animal specie, shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine of N1,000 for first offenders and one year imprisonment without fine for a second and subsequent offence.
Meanwhile the chewing habit of squirrel is troublesome as it results in damaged fruits, nuts, clothes, and other household items.
However, they don’t chew out of hunger or habit; they are actually chewing to survive.
Research say if they don’t chew regularly their teeth will continue to grow, and pierce into their skull and lower jaw. So, by chewing they are actually conserving their own species.