The Role of Squirrels in the Ecosystem. Do They Serve a Purpose?
We encounter squirrels on a regular basis and find them all cute and cuddly. But you may be surprised by the important role of squirrels in the ecosystem.
Squirrels are fluffy-tailed rodents that feed on fruits, nuts, and vegetables. We see them most active in the autumn as they forage for food preparing for the coming winter months. They can be a bit notorious for gnawing away at things around our homes.
But apart from these, they do have an important role to play in the ecosystem they inhabit. So, let’s have a look at some interesting facts about these fluffy-tailed green forest loving animals.
• Role of Squirrels in the Ecosystem •
The most important role of squirrels in the ecosystem is forest regeneration. They are huge contributors in shaping plant composition due to their eating and food saving habit.
Squirrels love to feed on seeds, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. While they eat seeds and nuts though they have this peculiar habit of burying some of them for future consumption. This is called caching and 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.
So while squirrels bury their food for future consumption, they are also planting seeds for new trees to grow in the forest.
Role in the Food Chain
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. Squirrels become food for air and land predators including:
- red foxes
- gray wolves
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.
Help Truffles to Thrive
Mushrooms grow above ground, so their spores are easily spread by the air. However, truffles grow underground, therefore their spores can’t be spread through the air. For their spores to reach the host plants, truffles rely heavily on animals like rodents and squirrels.
Squirrels dig out grounds to bury their food or to feed on the buried fungi. Afterward, they poop out the spores of the truffles on the forest floor. This allows the fungi to form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the trees they land near.
Chewing to Survive
This one isn’t so much a benefit to the ecosystem, but rather for the survival of squirrels. The chewing habit of squirrels is troublesome as it results in damaged fruits, nuts, clothes, and other household items. But they don’t chew out of hunger or habit; they are actually chewing to survive.
Their continuous chewing is because their front teeth (incisors) keep on growing, so squirrels chew things to wear their teeth down.
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.
They Aid in Stroke Research
Scientists are conducting research on a few species of squirrels, and are hoping it will guide them to develop a drug to help humans survive during a stroke.
During winter ground squirrels hibernate, and there’s a huge drop in their body temperature. It can drop to as low as 26.7 degrees Fahrenheit; the lowest body temperature of a mammal. To deal with this extra-cold hibernation, cellular changes occur in a squirrel’s brain and it is able to deal with reduced blood flow.
Scientists are taking this factor of their body, and trying to invent a drug to mimic it in humans. In the case of a stroke, it could enable the brain to deal with low blood supply.
Indicators of Forest Health
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.
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