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How do squirrels climb trees?

Eastern Grey Squirrel  on green background
ViktorCap
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Eastern Grey Squirrel

Squirrels are everywhere. Three hundred or so species of these often adorable rodents live on every continent except Antarctica. No matter where you live, city or country you’re bound to have squirrels nearby. How much do you know about our bushy-tailed neighbors? How fast do squirrels and chipmunks run? Why do squirrels have big bushy tails? Do squirrels get sick? Why do they like nuts better than berries? How do squirrels eat acorns? How do squirrels sleep? Are squirrels nocturnal? Answers to your squirrel questions with Ben Dantzer, scientist at University of Michigan. Plus some observational activities you can do to learn more about squirrel behavior!

Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slides | Transcript

"How do squirrels climb up trees?"
-Rachel, 5, Alabama

Squirrels have long nails and they have five digits (fingers or toes) on their paws just like us.

And squirrels are expert climbers. “Some tree, or arboreal, squirrels are really well adapted to climb up trees whereas ground squirrels also have nails or claws, but they use them primarily for digging and not for climbing,” explains Ben Dantzer. “Tree squirrels have this especially long middle digit that helps them climb up and down trees.”

So an extra long middle finger and they can do something else that humans can’t. “The most helpful thing they can do is when they climb down a tree, squirrels can turn their back feet around when they’re climbing down head first. They turn their rear feet entirely around so they can use those claws to hang down from a tree and walk down easily.”

What? Tree squirrels can turn their feet all the way around so they’re backwards when the squirrel is climbing down a tree?! Time to go outside and see if you can observe that in the wild!

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Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. She also produces special projects for the station. Until March 2021, she was the host of the award-winning Vermont Public Radio program Vermont Edition.
Melody is the senior producer for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids.