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What Is a Sun Squirrel?

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  • Written By: C.B. Fox
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 08 April 2014
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A sun squirrel is any species of squirrel in the genus Helioscurius. There are six recognized species and a number of sub species, usually differentiated by color. These squirrels are native to sub-Saharan Africa, and most species are common in their endemic ranges. Like other members of the rodent family, sun squirrels have incisors that grow continually.

All species of sun squirrel are native to tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, south of the Saharan desert. Arboreal animals, these squirrels spend much of their time in trees and are often observed resting on tree limbs in the sun, which is how they got their name. They live in wooded areas from jungles to scrubland but are not found in savanna or desert regions. The various species in the genus inhabit different countries in Africa, with some species, such as the Gambian sun squirrel found in western, central, and eastern African nations, while others, such as the mutable sun squirrel, found only in countries on the southeastern African coast.

Opportunistic eaters, sun squirrels are omnivorous and will eat just about anything they come across. Many species eat a number of different types of nuts and seeds as well as insects, eggs, and other small animals. Members of the Helioscurius genus have been observed eating reptiles, birds, and amphibians and it is believed that they may also eat other small mammals. Though they are not hunters, they will catch and consume other animals if the opportunity arises.

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Members of the sun squirrel genus are small, weighing about 0.7 pounds (318 grams) and growing to a length of 8 inches (20 cm). Their long, thin bodies and light weight help them move adeptly through trees. Coloration varies considerably between species and subspecies. They come in shades of gray, brown, yellow, and red, and some have spots or stripes on their backs.

It is not known how long sun squirrels live in the wild, though in captivity they have been known to reach 8 or 9 years of age. Most species are thought to breed twice per year, in the summer and winter. Females have small litters, usually only one or two offspring each time, so having two breeding seasons each year greatly increases the squirrel's chance of successfully rearing offspring to adulthood. Sun squirrels are largely solitary animals, though some species, notably the red-legged sun squirrel, are often found in pairs.

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