Ground squirrels of South Africa
Did you know?
Ground squirrels chase away snakes by repeated sideways flicks of their fluffy tails.
In the arid Karoo and Kalahari regions of South Africa, you may spot what looks like meerkat.
But look carefully, because it may in fact be a ground squirrel, or a group of them. It’s fairly easy to confuse the two, in part because they have so much in common. They’re roughly the same size, like the same terrain, also sit upright to look around, live in groups and are mad-keen burrowers. In fact, sometimes meerkats and ground squirrels actually live together.
Where they differ physically is that ground squirrels have very fluffy tails compared to meerkats, no visible ears, have pale bellies and unlike meerkats, ground squirrels are largely vegetarian. They eat seeds, soft leaves, flowers, tsamma melons (which are similar to watermelons and grow wild in the Kalahari) and the odd passing termite.
Their fluffy tails aren’t just for decoration. They use them during the heat of the day as parasols. By shading themselves from the sun, they’re able to save 5% on their energy needs.
Another trick they use to dodge the heat is to lie flat on their stomachs in the shade, legs and arms outstretched like a hearth rug, occasionally flicking sand onto their backs.
If it’s cold, they simply retire to their burrows.
Compared to the precocious and amusing meerkats, ground squirrels can come across as a little country-bumpkinish.
But watching them from the comfort of your chalet or tent is one of the enduring delights of a visit to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Here, as at some other park campsites and picnic spots, they have become used to humans.
They forage on all fours, regularly sitting back on their haunches holding seeds or leaves in their clawed hands, watching you with shyly confiding eyes. You might also see high-spirited youngsters chasing each other around, leaping high in the air and jinking their fluffed-up tails.
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Price will vary quite widely depending on what type of accommodation you choose in a national park in South Africa. The most inexpensive option is to camp, up to private guesthouses in some camps. Enquire directly with the South African National Parks.