Michael Ellis: Chipmunks

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Michael Ellis says California is diversity central for the impossibly cute chipmunk.

73% of all people I interviewed thought chipmunks were the cutest of all rodents. And nearly 90% of those folks over the age of 60 thought of “Alvin” when they heard the word- chipmunk. The word means “good looking rat”. No, not really, I made ALL of that up. Chipmunk is from the Algonquin language group of Eastern North America and means “animal that goes down tree headfirst” Now that is true! And they are pretty darn adorable!

The eastern chipmunk is very common, and the only species found east of the Mississippi. But California is the center, the center of chipmunk biodiversity. We have 13 species! And the real chipmunk Ground Zero is the Sierra Nevada. Driving from the Bay Area to Mono Lake you go through the territory of the Sonoma, yellow-pine, long eared, shadow, lodgepole, alpine and finally the least chipmunk in the Great Basin Desert.

The species look very similar - all have stripes through their head and along the sides of their body and very long tails. Whereas the larger golden mantled ground squirrel, also found in the Sierra, only has stripes on the side of its body not on its head. Chipmunks thrive in campgrounds eating dropped scraps but of course also hunt for seeds, fruits, insects and even bird eggs.

They also forage underground digging up fungi, like truffles. And, in fact, are responsible for the survival of these choice edible mushrooms which no longer can rely on air to disperse their spores. At high elevations the alpine chipmunk stores enough food to last the winter. It doesn’t hibernate but just goes into a deep sleep and occasionally wakes up, pees, grabs a bite to eat and then goes back to sleep.


One of the things I have in common with chipmunks was discovered by researchers carefully monitoring the inside of the burrows -- apparently, we are both fastidious housekeepers. And I like truffles as well.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist living in Santa Rosa.