What’s to know about squirrels? Quite a bit, according to Steven Sullivan, director of the Hefner Museum of Natural History at Miami University in Ohio. He runs a research effort called Project Squirrel, which studies tree squirrel populations around the continent.

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Here are some things you might not know about the bushy-tailed tree climbers, according to Sullivan.

1. Most of the squirrels on the East coast are gray squirrels or fox squirrels.

A gray squirrel at Bok Tower Gardens in 2011. [MICHELE MILLER | Times (2011)]
A gray squirrel at Bok Tower Gardens in 2011. [MICHELE MILLER | Times (2011)]

Gray squirrels are typically gray with a white belly and gray-frosted tail. Fox squirrels have stumpy ears and a rusty belly.


2. Gray squirrels are much smaller here than other areas of the country.

People give a squirrel a peanut in Vinoy Park in 2006. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2006)]
People give a squirrel a peanut in Vinoy Park in 2006. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2006)]

This part of central Florida is home to a variety of gray squirrel that is much tinier than its northern relatives. “They’re the same species but smaller,” Sullivan said. “We kind of expect that as you go south.”


3. Gray and fox squirrels aren’t often in the same place at the same time.

Carol Simons of Land o'Lakes feeds a squirrel in 2006. [Times (2006)]
Carol Simons of Land o'Lakes feeds a squirrel in 2006. [Times (2006)]

Even though they eat the same foods and live in similar habitats, slight differences appear to impact where they show up. “My instinct is that gray squirrels are probably more willing to eat just about anything,” he said, “whereas fox squirrels are cream-skimmers.”


4. Trees must be at least 15 centimeters in diameter at about 5 feet up to house squirrels.

Squirrels near Plant City. (Times)
Squirrels near Plant City. (Times)

Squirrels in Florida particularly like cypress, pine and cabbage palms.


5. Squirrels can live a maximum of 15 years.

Baby gray squirrels in Land O'Lakes. (Times | 2011)
Baby gray squirrels in Land O'Lakes. (Times | 2011)

Most die before their first birthday, but those who do make it that far often live to 5 years old, and those who make it to 5 years old often live to 10 years old.


6. Outdoor domestic cats are a big threat to squirrels (and other wildlife).

A squirrel grooms itself in a live oak tree at Del Oro playground at 401 North McMullen Booth Road in Clearwater. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
A squirrel grooms itself in a live oak tree at Del Oro playground at 401 North McMullen Booth Road in Clearwater. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

Cats hunt squirrels and small animals, which can impact their populations and the ecosystems they are a part of. “If you love nature, you recognize there is no place for a house cat outdoors. Period,” Sullivan said.


7. You can help scientists learn more about squirrels by telling them what you see.

A squirrel enjoys the sites and sounds of people in Largo Central Park. [Times | 2011]
A squirrel enjoys the sites and sounds of people in Largo Central Park. [Times | 2011]

Project Squirrel, which Sullivan leads, studies the distribution and population of tree squirrels. It relies on reports from people around the continent to help it understand squirrels around the world. To submit an observation, visit the project’s website.