Chipmunk Facts

Scientific Name: Family Sciuridae; Subfamily Xerinae

The chipmunk is a small, striped squirrel.
The chipmunk is a small, striped squirrel.

Alina Morozova, Getty Images

Chipmunks are small, ground-dwelling rodents known for stuffing their cheeks with nuts. They belong to the squirrel family Sciuridae and the subfamily Xerinae. The common name of chipmunk probably derived from the Ottawa jidmoonh, which means "red squirrel" or "one who descends trees headlong." In English, the word was written as "chipmonk" or "chipmunk."

Fast Facts: Chipmunk

  • Scientific Name: Subfamily Xerinae (e.g., Tamius striatus)
  • Common Names: Chipmunk, ground squirrel, striped squirrel
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 4-7 inches with a 3-5 inch tail
  • Weight: 1-5 ounces
  • Lifespan: 3 years
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Habitat: Forests of North America and northern Asia
  • Population: Abundant, stable or declining population (depends on species)
  • Conservation Status: Endangered to Least Concern (depends on species)

Species

There are three chipmunk genera and 25 species. Tamias striatus is the eastern chipmunk. Eutamias sibiricus is the Siberian chipmunk. The genus Neotamias includes 23 species, mostly found in western North America and collectively known as western chipmunks.

Description

According to National Geographic, chipmunks are the smallest members of the squirrel family. The largest chipmunk is the eastern chipmunk, which can reach 11 inches in body length with a 3 to 5 inch tail and weigh up to 4.4 ounces. Other species, on average, grow to 4 to 7 inches in length with a 3 to 5 inch tail and weigh between 1 and 5 ounces.

A chipmunk has short legs and a bushy tail. Its fur is usually reddish brown on the upper body and paler on the lower body, with black, white, and brown stripes running down its back. It has pouches in its cheeks which are used to transport food.

Chipmunks have cheek pouches they fill with food.
Chipmunks have cheek pouches they fill with food. Frank Cezus, Getty Images

Habitat and Distribution

Chipmunks are ground-dwelling mammals that prefer rocky, deciduous wooded habitats. The eastern chipmunk lives in southern Canada and the eastern United States. Western chipmunks inhabit the western United States and much of Canada. The Siberian chipmunk lives in northern Asia, including Siberia in Russia and Japan.

Diet

Like other squirrels, chipmunks cannot digest cellulose in wood, so they obtain nutrients from an omnivorous diet. Chipmunks forage throughout the day for nuts, seeds, fruit, and buds. They also eat produce farmed by humans, including grains and vegetables, as well as worms, bird eggs, small arthropods, and small frogs.

Behavior

Chipmunks use their cheek pouches to transport and store food. The rodents dig burrows for nesting and torpor during the winter. They do not truly hibernate, as they awaken periodically to eat from their food caches.

Adults mark territory with cheek scent glands and urine. Chipmunks also communicate using complex vocal sounds, ranging from a fast chittering sound to a croak.

Baby chipmunks are born hairless and blind.
Baby chipmunks are born hairless and blind. legna69, Getty Images

Reproduction and Offspring

Chipmunks lead solitary lives except for breeding and raising young. They breed once or twice a year and have a 28- to 35-day gestation period. A typical litter ranges from 3 to 8 pups. Pups are born hairless and blind and only weigh between 3 and 5 grams (about the weight of a coin). The female is solely responsible for their care. She weans them around 7 weeks of age. Pups are independent by 8 weeks of age and sexually mature when they are 9 months old.

In the wild, chipmunks have many predators. They may survive two or three years. In captivity, chipmunks may live eight years.

Conservation Status

Most chipmunk species are classified as "least concern" by the IUCN and have stable populations. This includes the eastern and Siberian chipmunk. However, some species of western chipmunk are endangered or have decreasing populations. For example, Buller's chipmunk (Neotamias bulleri) is listed as "vulnerable" and Palmer's chipmunk (Neotamias palmeri) is listed as "endangered." Threats include habitat fragmentation and loss and natural disasters, such as forest fires.

Some people keep chipmunks as pets.
Some people keep chipmunks as pets. Carlos Ciudad Photos, Getty Images

Chipmunks and Humans

Some people consider chipmunks to be garden pests. Others keep them as pets. While chipmunks are intelligent and affectionate, there are some drawbacks to keeping them in captivity. They may bite or become aggressive, they mark scent using their cheeks and urine, and care must be taken to accommodate their hibernation schedule. In the wild, chipmunks generally do not carry rabies. However, some in the western United States carry plague. While wild chipmunks are friendly and cute, it's best to avoid contact, especially if they appear sick.

Sources

  • Cassola, F. Tamias striatus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016 (errata version published in 2017): e.T42583A115191543. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T42583A22268905.en
  • Gordon, Kenneth Llewellyn. The Natural History and Behavior of the Western Chipmunk and the Mantled Ground Squirrel. Oregon, 1943.
  • Kays, R. W.; Wilson, Don E. Mammals of North America (2nd ed.). Princeton University Press. p. 72, 2009. ISBN 978-0-691-14092-6.
  • Patterson, Bruce D.; Norris, Ryan W. "Towards a uniform nomenclature for ground squirrels: the status of the Holarctic chipmunks." Mammalia. 80 (3): 241–251, 2016. doi:10.1515/mammalia-2015-0004
  • Thorington, R.W., Jr.; Hoffman, R.S. "Tamias (Tamias) striatus". In Wilson, D.E.; Reeder, D.M (eds.). Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.), 2005. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 817. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0.