As a diurnal, woodland savannah species, tree squirrels are often seen feeding on the ground in a fidgety manner, passing from one tasty morsel to the next. Like most animals in the African bush, they have to be totally in tune with their surroundings lest they become a morsel themselves. At a mere two hundred grams, death can come from above or below at any moment. And yet they survive despite the fact that they have more predators than hairs on their long, bushy tails; a true testament to their wits and vigilance.
Large, dark eyes with near GoPro-like vision coupled with an acute sense of hearing allow them to detect the slightest movement or rustle in their immediate vicinity. They are adorned with a discerning nose that has a peculiar nub on the end and is lined with long, conspicuous black whiskers up to 50mm long. They are highly dexterous, able to manipulate the tiniest of seeds with precision, and are recognized as meticulous groomers; a necessary trait that strengthens family ties and contributes to a common scent. Their feet are softly padded and armed with sharp, curved, needle-like claws that allow them to grip and climb making them perfectly adapted to an arboreal life.
Divided into nine subspecies according to Meester et al. (1986), differentiated on pelage colour and body size, tree squirrels occur over most of eastern, central and southern Africa. At Londolozi, it’s the Smith’s bush squirrel, yellow-footed squirrel or simply, the tree squirrel that we regularly see out on game drives. Usually they’re sunning themselves on a leadwood tree, scurrying for cover as we drive by or alarm calling at a passing leopard with their characteristic twittering call. The Smith’s bush squirrel is found in the savannahs and the mopane and acacia woodlands of South Africa, southern Botswana and Zimbabwe where they are confined to areas with suitable resting and breeding sites; usually holes in trees, in the ground or in-between rocks.
They live in territorial family groups of two to twelve adhering to a social hierarchy and recognizing each other via a common scent which is shared through allo-grooming (the assiduous practice of licking, combing, nibbling and scratching), occupation of the same nest or by marking each other with an anal gland secretion. Strangers are kept at bay, usually by the dominant males, who actively demarcate the territory through urination, mouth-wiping and anal-dragging.
Throughout their eight year lifespan they will breed repeatedly according to season, giving birth to a mean litter size of two. The babies open their eyes after seven to nine days, leave the nest for the first time after eighteen to twenty two days in order to follow the parents as they go about their daily foraging. If they are disturbed they can lie spreadeagled and motionless until the danger is passed, or they will return to their holes with breathtaking speed and agility. What frustrates many a photographer is their habit of keeping the trunk of the tree between themselves and the lens. They can grunt and growl to show displeasure, or click and rattle to communicate or raise an alarm which is normally coupled with vigorous head bobbing and tail flicking.
The Smith’s bush squirrel feeds mostly on flowers, fruit and seeds occasionally dangling from one foot on the most flimsiest of branches in order to reach their food. Viljoen (1975, 1983b) listed over thirty species recognized in stomach contents ranging from Acacia gum to flowers of the Tamboti tree, making them the most accomplished of vegetarians. Insects, such as ants and aphids, constitute a secondary component to their diet. From my own observation, they seem to have a particular weakness for termites and broccoli. Armed with some serious incisors they can gain access to just about any kernel and from an elevated position they will sit and work a nut or seed while simultaneously keeping a lookout for danger.
They cache their food in times of plenty in preparation for the winter. Using their front feet they scrape a hole in the ground, place the food in it, nudge it deeper with the nose and cover it back up with the front feet. They preferably do this when out of sight of other group members as food stealing is part and parcel of tree squirrel society. They tend to choose sites that are protected, usually at the base of a tree, and scattered so as to avoid putting their nuts all in one proverbial basket. As a result, this scatter-hoarding behaviour contributes to the dispersal of a multitude of trees, grasses and shrubs.
Most would probably consider them an unremarkable and inconspicuous part of any game drive but delve a little deeper and you will learn that these facultative, resourceful and jittery arborists of the bushveld are a joy to watch.
The fact that they have helped us find many a leopard over the years through their keen eyes and frantic alarm calls is also greatly appreciated by the many rangers, trackers and thousands of guests who have been out on safari at Londolozi since its inception!