Disappearance of Barbary Ground Squirrels

Hello all,

Desertification is a problem in Morocco, and in the past two years, there has been a terrible drought in my area, and likely throughout the surrounding region. However, this past year the argan nuts upon which the Barbary Ground Squirrels depend were very few–there were only a few on the odd tree, whereas the year before there was a bountiful crop. Not having been here long, I don’t know how rare that is. However, in those two years there was only a bit of rain between December and March. So the squirrels had to get through eight months per year without water. During the baking summer months, all the vegetation in the forest dies back to the roots, so there is no vegetation to nibble on or to attract dew, either.

I rescued a squirrel in June this past year who was seriously dehydrated and emaciated and was dying. And since then, I have not seen a squirrel anywhere in the forest, though now, the rains have returned, and another crop of argan nuts is ripening. I can tell that there are no squirrels because there is no evidence of the nuts being eaten and my dogs, horrible squirrel chasers, have not located any. Formerly there were areas with trees which seemed to function as squirrel apartment houses, and there was a squirrel in most of the older trees in the forest.

I don’t see any way to avoid the conclusion that all the squirrels in the forest here, and possibly in a much wider area have died. Is there anyone who has seen them elsewhere?

Thanks to anyone who can shed light on this subject. I am especially concerned because these squirrels are found only in a small range in which desertification is a problem.

With good wishes,
Ila France Porcher
ethologist

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Hi @IlaFrance. I don’t know much about squirrels or the ecology of Morocco, but it’s interesting and concerning to read about what you’re seeing.

I took a look at the observations in iNat to see if that might shed any light on population trends. Here’s a comparison of Barbary Ground Squirrel observations in Morocco for the past five years.

Unfortunately, the number of iNat observations is probably too few to draw any firm conclusions. There were 4 observations in 2016, 5 in 2017, 9 in 2018, 11 in 2019 and 13 in 2020 (easiest to see if you switch to the History/Seasonality tab). One of the 2019 observations was by you, as were three of the 2020 observations, of which the last is essentially to report the absence of squirrels since the summer. So the raw data suggest a modest increase in reported observations, but we need to set that against a general increase in observations worldwide over time (including Morocco) and a drop in observations in Morocco in 2020 (presumably caused by the pandemic curtailing most tourism). FWIW, here are the ground squirrel observations as a percentage of all observations in Morocco across those years:

  • 2016: 0.664% (4 in 602)
  • 2017: 0.706% (5 in 708)
  • 2018: 0.267% (9 in 3,377)
  • 2019: 0.300% (11 in 3,665)
  • 2020: 0.522% (12 in 2,297)

Given all the complicating factors (low observation numbers, no systematic observation strategy), I don’t think we can draw any real conclusion from that.

Historically, it seems most ground squirrel observations have been from December through March, but that just tracks the overall pattern of observations in Morocco.

Interestingly, in the Canary Islands, where there is an invasive, introduced population of barbary ground squirrels, there was a big drop in observations in 2020 (down to 9 from 26 in 2019), but I’m guessing this also likely reflects reduced tourism.

This 2018 paper (based on research from 2017) indicates that mating happens around February, with the first young squirrels typically born in March.

That research also indicates that the species had expanded its range up to 25 km north of Safi, whereas the previous limit had been 30 km south of Safi. The rapid colonization documented in this paper (and the invasive spread of the species on Fuerteventura) suggests that if neighboring populations survived there’s a good chance your area will be recolonized in coming years.

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Thank you very much for your analysis, Rupert, and for taking so much time to assess the situation. I hope that you are right about the possibility of repopulation, especially if the trend in increasing drought and die-back of the forests does not continue.

It is very sad to walk through this forest, now brilliant green and full of birds, and empty of squirrels.

It will be interesting to see where the sightings are in 2021, for as you are saying, that will tell us where they have survived.

With good wishes,
Ila

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I’m guessing the researchers listed on that 2018 paper would have a lot better knowledge about the prospects for the squirrel population recovering and might well be happy to discuss that with you. I do think the general issue you raise is likely to be a big challenge for this species and many others in arid climates. Even though a lot of these species have evolved strategies to get through several dry months every year, that doesn’t mean they can survive much longer droughts, so their ranges may contract substantially.

Yes, actually I’m just reading the paper and will contact the authors. Indeed, I haven’t seen any snakes since the last dry season, nor lizards, for that matter except in watered gardens. I’m sure many of the snakes here counted on getting the odd squirrel too. I agree with you that the situation is likely happening in other places where deserts are expanding.

Thanks again so very much for your concern.

With good wishes,
Ila

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