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Chipmunk vs. Squirrel Sizes, Habitats and Characteristics

A chipmunk with a stripe down its back nibbles on a serviceberry
This is a chipmunk and a squirrel. Yes, you read that right. Daniel Haug / Getty Images

You're out on a walk and see a small, furry creature. Is it a chipmunk? Or maybe a squirrel? What's the difference?

Here's everything you need to know about chipmunk vs. squirrel characteristics and behaviors.

What Is a Chipmunk?

A chipmunk is one of 25 species of squirrel in the Tamias genus. That's right: All chipmunks are squirrels. (But not all squirrels are chipmunks; Tamias is just one of 50 squirrel genera.)

The genus name Tamias comes from the Latin word for "storer," a reference to its tendency to store food in burrows.

Where Do Chipmunks Live?

Twenty-four of the 25 species of chipmunks live in North America. The Siberian chipmunk (Tamias sibiricus) is the only non-North American chipmunk and lives in Asia.

How Big Are Chipmunks?

The smallest and most common chipmunk species is the least chipmunk (Tamias minimus), a tiny rodent — 7.2 to 8.5 inches (18.3 to 21.6 centimeters) tall and 1.1 to 1.8 ounces (31.2 to 51.0 grams) in weight — with a white underbelly, one dark stripe along the center of its back and alternating black and gray stripes on its sides.

The largest chipmunk is the eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus), which can be up to 11 inches (28 centimeters) long, including the tail, and weigh up to 4.4 ounces (124.7 grams).

Chipmunk Features

These are some of the identifying features of chipmunks:

  • Chipmunks are small animals. The largest chipmunk only weighs 4.4 ounces (124.7 grams).

  • Chipmunks have stripes.

  • Chipmunks have cheek pouches they use to store food.

  • Chipmunks are terrestrial (they live on the ground, not in trees).

What Is a Squirrel?

A squirrel is one of 268 species of rodent in the Sciuridae family, including chipmunks, flying squirrels, ground squirrels and even prairie dogs. But when you think of a squirrel, what comes to mind is probably the tree squirrel.

Tree Squirrels

There are 122 species of tree squirrels, from the eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) to the American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus).

Tree squirrels, as the name suggests, are arboreal, meaning they spend a significant portion of their lives in trees. The Indian giant squirrel (Ratufa indica), for example, almost never leaves the tropical forest canopy. The eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), on the other hand, will run on the ground to get from one tree to another.

Although the time spent on the ground differs between species, all tree squirrels make their nests in trees.

Squirrels can live anywhere from five years (red squirrels) to six years (eastern gray squirrels) to 18 years (fox squirrels)

Ground Squirrels

The 62 species of ground squirrels share a subfamily (Sciurinae) with chipmunks, marmots and prairie dogs. Ground squirrels and chipmunks are more closely related than tree squirrels and chipmunks, so they can be harder to tell apart.

Like chipmunks, ground squirrels have cheek pouches and live in burrows. They can have stripes or spots and come in many different colors.

One of the smallest ground squirrels is the white-tailed antelope squirrel (Ammospermophilus leucurus). Its body is, on average, 6.7 inches (17 centimeters) long, its tail 3 inches (8 centimeters), and it weighs 3.4 to 4 ounces (96 to 117 grams), making it about the same size as a large chipmunk.

Identifying Squirrels and Chipmunks

If you're out on a walk and you see a furry little rodent gathering nuts or seeds, how can you tell if it's a chipmunk or a squirrel? Here are some tips for identifying members of the squirrel family.

  • If it's climbing trees or raiding bird feeders, it's probably a tree squirrel, like the eastern gray squirrel or western gray squirrel (Sciurus griseus).

  • If it pops its head out of an underground burrow, it might be a chipmunk or a ground squirrel.

  • If it's small and striped, it may be a chipmunk. On the whole, chipmunks are smaller than squirrels. And while some squirrels have stripes, they can also have spots or be solid-color.

The best way to differentiate between squirrels and chipmunks is to know which rodents are common in your area.

For example, if you're walking around a New York City park, you're likely to see eastern chipmunks and eastern gray squirrels. It's easy to tell them apart because the chipmunks are less than half the size of the squirrels. They're also striped and live underground, while the gray squirrels spend their days in the trees.

Original article: Chipmunk vs. Squirrel Sizes, Habitats and Characteristics

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