The tails of two squirrels

The Malayan Giant Squirrel , or Black Giant Squirrel, Ratufa bicolor, is a squirrel on steroids. Far above in the canopy it looks more like a monkey, being a total of 1.2 meters long, half of which is tail. This one’s tail looks just like a long ponytail, still wet from the shower


They live in forests from eastern Nepal and northeast India (where I photographed this one) all the way through southeast Asia to western Indonesia. They are almost entirely arboreal, rarely descending to the ground.

Malayan Giant Squirrel

They eat seeds, fruits, and leaves, and have ear tufts like our British red squirrel:


Like most solitary squirrels, they are polygynandrous (a new word I learnt while researching this); not only do the males mate with multiple females, but when the female is in season she mates with five or six males, and a litter may have several different fathers. Despite the orgies, numbers are thought to have dropped by 30% in the last ten years because of habitat loss*, and it doesn’t help that until recently they were sold in large quantities in the food markets in Vientiane in Lao.

More familiar in scale, but quite cute, is the Hoary-bellied Himalayan Squirrel, Callosciurus pygerythrus, so called because each hair has two light yellow rings, giving its coat a hoary or grizzled look.

Hoary-bellied Squirrel

Although it is a smallish squirrel, about 40 cm from head to tail-tip, its tail is also impressive, and nearly as long as the rest of its body. Unfortunately it has arranged its tail behind the tree trunk, but if you look carefully you can just see the tip emerging in the top right-hand corner of the next photo:

Hoary-bellied Squirrel

It is common and not threatened, despite also being widely eaten in some areas of Lao. The ones in the foreground of this photo look like Hoary-bellied squirrels to me:

*The Malayan Giant Squirrel is classified as Near Threatened, mainly due to deforestation, since they live high in the canopy of tall trees.

A reader asked me what the huge tail is for, since it seems more of a liability than a plus. I have poked around to find an answer, and as I suspected it is probably mainly used as a counterweight when leaping through the canopy, but it may also attract mates (a lot of them!), and in other species of squirrel it is known to be used in communication.

3 thoughts on “The tails of two squirrels”

    1. Good question. They don’t curl it up over their backs like our red and gray squirrels do, but it may play a role in balance, or maybe purely for display. Perhaps the bigger your tail the more partners join your orgies?! If I find out more, I’ll add it to the posting.


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