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The Extraordinary Ordinary Richardson's Ground Squirrel

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The smallest creatures can sometimes teach the greatest lessons. What can one humble gopher show us about the intricacy of God’s creative engineering?

My wife and I recently moved to a small farm in southern Alberta, Canada, where we’ve found that living on a farm deepens one’s connection to God’s creation. There is also a lot of hard work—but sometimes those two things go together. For example, gophers are taking over our pasture, and while trying to control the gopher population, I learned a little of how these seemingly ordinary creatures glorify their Creator.

A Rodent of Many Names

In 1820, Sir John Richardson, a Scottish surgeon and naturalist, was on a naval expedition tasked with mapping the arctic coast of British North America, which is now Canada. While on an overland excursion, He came into contact with a rodent species he had not encountered before. He sent specimens back to England, along with the first known scientific description of this “new” species.

In his honor, the rodents were named “Richardson’s ground squirrel.” Other more descriptive names for these animals include “gopher,” from the French gaufre, meaning honeycomb or waffle, referring to the intricate burrows they build; “flickertails,” as their tails seem to be in constant motion; “dakrat,” or “Dakota rat”; and “picket-pin,” after their habit of standing up “straight as a pin” on their hind legs when surveying their surroundings for danger.

For many people, the word “squirrel” evokes an image of a bushy-tailed, nut-gathering creature that makes its home in trees. However, there are more than 200 different species of squirrels found throughout the world. The Richardson’s ground squirrel is one of them—a squirrel that lives on and in the ground.

Underground Engineers

A colony of ground squirrels will use the same burrows for years, renovating them as needed by adding more tunnels, sleeping chambers, entrances, and exits. Each burrow is home for one adult or for a female and her very young offspring. A few weeks after birth, shortly before the next hibernation cycle, the offspring leave their mother to find abandoned burrows or build their own.

When building burrows, ground squirrels avoid soil that does not drain well or will not compact to form structurally safe tunnels and rooms. Soil moisture content is also essential in identifying building locations. Richardson’s ground squirrels inhabit dry, grassy areas that often do not have direct access to groundwater. The soil in which they build must be moisture-retaining to help them stay sufficiently hydrated.

The One who created these squirrels has supplied them with the skills necessary to thrive in their environment—the skills of a master architect and engineer. For instance, a typical burrow will have several entrances and exits leading to passages and rooms about 30–100 centimeters below the ground. To minimize the risk of flooding, ground squirrels will build drainage tunnels at the lowest point of a burrow.

Each burrow will have only one hibernation chamber, but multiple sleeping rooms, and a ground squirrel will sleep in the same room for just a few days before moving to another. This strange sleep routine ensures that the squirrel’s scent does not build up too strongly and attract predators. Before beginning hibernation, ground squirrels block the entrances and exits of their burrows with soil. Once they enter the hibernation chamber, they block its entrance as well.

Planning Ahead and Taking a Break

It may seem surprising that Richardson’s ground squirrels are active above-ground for only a few months each year—for most of the year, they hibernate. Their hibernation period generally extends from July through February. On average, adult ground squirrels are active for four months each year, though males—both adults and juveniles—may have an active period up to three months longer, as their hibernation preparations are more extensive than those of females.

A female ground squirrel will take no food into her hibernation chamber, while a male will build up a small store of seeds and nuts for himself to eat when he awakens in early spring. These food stores are critical because males awaken from hibernation a few days earlier than females, often while the ground is still under a layer of snow and foraging is difficult. With less body fat than females, a store of food with high fat-content is essential for regulating their bodies and preparing them for reproduction when they come out of hibernation. Like so many others across the animal kingdom, these creatures have been specially “programmed” by their Creator to know exactly what they need, exactly when they need it.

Quite a Beneficial “Pest”!

As Richardson’s ground squirrels are considered a pest in some communities, authorities often encourage population control via poisoning or trapping. Not only can an overabundance of these prolific herbivores reduce crop yields and decimate vegetable gardens, but their vast networks of underground tunnels riddle the land with entrance and exit holes that create dangerous trip hazards for humans and livestock.

Should we therefore consider these creatures mere “accidents of evolution”? Or were they crafted by a brilliant Designer who creates nothing without a reason? If they are creations, we might expect to find a real benefit the Richardson’s ground squirrel provides to its environment.

And we do. Richardson’s ground squirrels play an essential role in the prairie ecosystem. Their intensive and deep tunneling helps to cultivate and improve soil conditions, and the burrows that they vacate are converted into prime real estate for lizards, burrowing owls, and bees. These burrows also protect small animals seeking shelter from predators or stormy weather.

Richardson’s ground squirrels are near the bottom of the prairie ecosystem’s food chain. A healthy population of ground squirrels can sustain other wildlife like badgers, weasels, coyotes, owls, foxes, snakes, hawks, falcons, and eagles. Richardson’s ground squirrels make up a considerable portion of some of these predators’ diets. For example, the diet of ferruginous hawks—an endangered species—is estimated to consist almost exclusively of ground squirrels during the squirrel’s active period. Though considered a “pest” because of their abundance, a shortage of Richardson’s ground squirrels could very well endanger the prairie ecosystem God has established—and be far worse for our gardens than their “pesky” presence!

Seeing God’s Hand in the Ordinary

There is much that we can learn from observing the seemingly ordinary living creatures God has made. In fact, Scripture tells us so: “But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you; and the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you; and the fish of the sea will explain to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this, in whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?” (Job 12:7–10).

Whenever we’re tempted to think that a part of the natural world is more trouble than it’s worth—or worse, the result of “blind chance”—we should be willing to look a little harder, giving ourselves an opportunity to discover the fascinating abilities and extraordinary benefits in Almighty God’s creation. We should be careful not to overlook God’s hand in the “extraordinary ordinary” creations he has deliberately put into our lives to draw our attention to Him—creations like Richardson’s ground squirrels.

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