Animal of the week: European ground squirrel

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  29. 07. 2019

European ground squirrels were in the news this week thanks to the release of 85 individuals in the Louny region, which took place in the presence of the Prime Minister. But it’s not the first time they’ve been celebrated by the media. For instance, they entered the public consciousness in connection with the deliberations on holding the Olympics in Prague - the ground squirrel was supposed to be the mascot - not to mention the post-war years when they were so numerous in places that their burrows threatened the stability of railway embankments and roads!

Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo

As a typical inhabitant of open areas, the European ground squirrel lives in colonies and has been a part of our landscape ever since it was fundamentally changed by agricultural development. Apparently, they have been living in Moravia for two to three thousand years and in Bohemia for around six to seven hundred years.

As mentioned, ground squirrel numbers reached their peak shortly after World War II, and their eradication became a de facto state mission. In 1949, more than 14,000 were killed in the Valtice area alone, and there was no noticeable decline in their population the following year. Nevertheless, the pendulum gradually began to return from this extreme position and later it also swung to the opposite position. Without attracting much attention, the ground squirrel declined, and in the 1970s and especially in the 1990s zoologists were surprised to find that the maps with locations marked for ground squirrels had become incredibly thinned. The European ground squirrel has become a critically endangered species here in the Czech Republic (CR). According to the latest data available, from last summer, there were just 6,600 individuals living in 38 localities. Ten or fifteen years ago the situation was even worse!

It is not entirely clear why there has been such a loss in ground squirrels. Changes in land use, especially the consolidation of fields and the drop in grazing areas, have certainly played an important role. One thing that the European ground squirrel needs is low vegetation, so that it can have a good view of its surroundings. Therefore, the places where they survived or where they have been returned are often maintained with the help of grazing.

The European ground squirrel was supposed to become a mascot of the Olympics that had been planned many years ago. This was due to its large colony at the airport in Prague’s Letňany district, which was the largest in the CR. Unfortunately, however, this colony recently disappeared and today the only ground squirrels in Prague live in our zoo at Sklenářka, where they were artificially introduced in 2006. They are descendants of ground squirrels captured at Letňany - or in the Central Bohemian Uplands. And so last Tuesday, with great pomp and circumstance, 29 of “our” ground squirrels (along with 56 individuals from other zoos) were returned to their ancestral homeland in Louny.

Perhaps this event, organized by the Nature Conservation Agency of the Czech Republic, will contribute to saving the European ground squirrel in our country – that being, in part, by once again giving it some media attention.

Published in the Czech daily MF Dnes.