Alas, I just found out that one of my favorite scientific names of all time may have been yanked from the biological lexicon. Spermophilus tridecemlineatus , which can literally be translated into “thirteen-lined seed lover” has been the long standing scientific name of the Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel. The name is so clearly descriptive and wonderfully Latin that I can scarcely think of another more perfect example. Being a simple, if often overly descriptive type of Naturalist, I employed it ad-nauseum over the years (almost as often as I used the phrase ad-nauseum). Today the creature’s name is frequently reported as Ictidomys tridecemlineatus – making it sound more like a disease than a rodent.
Up until a few weeks ago, before my trip to Wisconsin, I was still blissfully ignorant about this change. So, I could blame Wisconsin for my loss. The picnic grounds around Ottawa Lake in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest were crawling with these striped rodents. But blame is not the proper word here. I should praise them (whoever them is..er, are) for pulling the blinders off mine…er, my eyes. After photographing and observing these little creatures ad-nauseum I hit the “books” to find out something more about them beyond my favorite Latin name factoid.
Imagine my horror upon discovering that someone had re-examined the whole ground squirrel classification system a while back and decided to make the change based on genetic reality. No one told me about this and thus I was a bit miffed. My hurt translated into a Corn Nut eating binge which ended in a chipped tooth. Thank you Wisconsin, Corn Nuts, and you, you meddling taxonomists you.
The selected genus name- Ictidomys – actually predates Spermophilus name. It first appeared in an 1821 work by naturalist S.L. Mitchell which was called, in part, “A Description of Two Mammaliferous Animals.” You should have seen my spell check react when I typed in that title! My initial loss of a tooth and a name may have been replaced by a new favorite title. Well, anyway, one of the two mammaliferous types described was the Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel. The seed-lover designation has since been shifted over to a gang of closely related European ground squirrels (Mein Gott!).
The good thing about all this is that the animal itself has not changed one iota in spite of its many name changes. You know what they say about “a rose is a rose.” J.J. Audubon called it the Thirteen-lined Spermophile, some call it the Leopard Ground Squirrel, and the Minnesotans supposively used this creature as the model for their “Golden Gopher” name. Gophers, as found in office place settings and across the Great Plains, are totally apart from ground squirrels but that is grist for another day. For the most part the common name of our subject has remained fairly consistent over the years.
Now that I’ve wasted sufficient screen space on Corn Nuts and naming notes, it is time to turn our attention to the ground squirrel in question.At this point it may border on the ridiculous to say that Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels are small ground dwelling members of the squirrel clan which have thirteen stripes running down their backs. Oh, yes, they also love seeds by the way.
Let’s go back to the stripe thing if we may. Mammals, at least our North American Mammaliferous types, tend to be rather boring when it comes to color and patterning. Chipmunks, other ground squirrels, the Wisconsin badger, and at least one bat do their part but the bold linear pattern of the T.L.G.S. tops them all. An alternating set of seven dark brown and six cream colored stripes run down the entire length of their backs. The dark brown stripes are perforated with cream spots – starbursts really – prompting some to call this the “Star-spangled Banner Ground Squirrel.” In fact, probably only a few inebriated picnickers actually call it by that nom de plume but sometimes drunk people can be incredibly witty just before they toss their cookies.
The true meaning of this whole thirteen line thing becomes immediately apparent when you see this ground squirrel in its native haunts. It’s not about being different or flashy, quite the opposite. It is all about blending in. The stripes offer a perfect camouflage against a grassy backdrop. I leave you with a photo to demonstrate this fact.
Sure twelve lines, even ten, would probably do the same job but in this case thirteen is not just an odd number, it is a perfect number.