Hello or Hiccup?

California Ground Squirrel (Otospermophilus beecheyi)

Conflict between brain and gut is a familiar scenario for humans. It also plays a role in human analysis of non-human behavior. Specifically, what are we to make of the high-pitched chipping noise that the California Ground Squirrel is often seen to issue? Is this a signal from its brain meant as a message to its conspecifics? Or is it an involuntary gastric convulsion, a hiccup?

In the video above, I had heard the little mammal chipping periodically for quite some time before I spotted it and set up my gear to record it. Each chip or peep is preceded by a quick movement of the torso and head, as if something were being compressed inside. The sound follows.

No other squirrel could be seen in the vicinity. Others may have been present out of my view.

While the squirrel was issuing its high-pitched squeaks every few seconds, it was not eating. Then it started eating, and the squeaking stopped. No squeaks or peeps or chips came from the squirrel while it ate.

It seems to me that this sequence of events is consistent with the gastric theory — that the squirrel’s audio is an involuntary digestive spasm. It is inconsistent with the signal theory. It’s hard to understand why the squirrel’s intent to signal its fellows ceased when it began to eat. What might the message be if it lost its urgency when the sender began to eat?

Of course, a middle road is possible: the squirrel’s sound-making is a signal that it’s hungry. Further research may be required. Always.

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3 thoughts on “Hello or Hiccup?

  • Amazing closeup video! I really enjoyed this. I tend to agree with the previous two commenters. The vocalization looks and sounds very intentional. Plus to me it has a beautiful clear ringing quality that I can’t imagine being a burp or hiccup, seems much more likely that the sound is designed to carry. Involuntary spasms would be less likely to conveniently stop for eating. To me it looked like s/he decided to stop vocalizing and start eating.
    (Bev Jo, I am a rodent appreciator too!)

  • Marty wrote, ” Each chip or peep is preceded by a quick movement of the torso and head, as if something were being compressed inside. The sound follows. ”

    I saw the video differently. The head / torso movements were simultaneous with the chips, and appeared to be the very normal manner in which many mammal vocalizations are made –by suddenly or slowly forcing air that is in their lungs out through their vocal chords (and mouth and/or nose), while also modulating their vocal chords and their mouth (and/or nasal) chamber to intentionally produce particular sounds.

    I don’t see –in the videos posted– evidence that these individuals are having air forced INTO their lungs, by involuntary spasms, causing that air to pass (be inhaled) through the vocal chords, in typical hiccup mode.

    That’s not to say that ground squirrels might not also hiccup. But I don’t see evidence that these chips are anything other than intentional vocalizations by the squirrels.

    Yes. “Further research may be required. Always.”

  • She is talking. California Ground Squirrels have language, like their Prairie Dog cousins. Often they will yell a word repeatedly as a warning. I’ve seen one do that to a Bobcat who was in their village territory and not stop until the Bobcat left. They have different words for different predators. The last time I saw one calling out like that, which seemed like a word I hadn’t heard before, she was warning about a Gopher Snake nearby. I don’t know why no one has recorded some of their words and if they are the same or change in different areas. There is so much to know, but they are targeted for hatred and killing, even though they are a keystone species who helps so many other animals, including Burrowing Owls.

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