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How Do Squirrels Climb Trees?

Kristie Leong M.D. is a family practitioner with a strong background in nutrition.

Squirrels are amazing animals, but one thing that makes them so fascinating is their ability to climb trees. They can jump from branch to branch while they're scampering around, but they can also climb trees backward and forward as well. This is a skill that most animals don't have.

Squirrels can scamper up the sides of trees, jump from tree to tree, and hang on branches with their tails. They can climb a tree, regardless of its size, shape, or species. The way they do it is unique. How they do it comes down to their toes, tails, and lightweight body structure. Let's look at how squirrels climb trees and what makes them so skilled at doing so.

Squirrels Have Feet Designed for Climbing

Squirrels have feet that are adapted to climbing and gripping. They have tiny feet with sharp tips and curved claws that make it easy to grip the tree. The same small tips make it easier to hold nuts too. With these sharp tips, squirrels can easily grip branches to make climbing easier.

Their feet also have a special membrane that allows them to grip branches even when they're wet or covered in snow, which is important for an animal that spends so much time high up in trees. Plus, their middle digit is longer, giving them unusual “clinging” power.

A Squirrel Can Climb a Tree Backwards

Squirrels are powerful climbers that can scale any tree and can even climb a tree backwards. The squirrel starts at the bottom of the trunk and works its way up by placing one foot behind the other.

How do they perform such an amazing feat? As mentioned, their claws are curved inwards and act like hooks that help them to hold on to the rough surface of a tree trunk or branch. Their sharp teeth allow them to bite into bark when necessary.

In addition, they have flexible ankles that can rotate their feet 180 degrees when climbing vertically up or down. When they turn around to climb down a tree, their claws help them hang on and avoid falling.

Why Do They Climb Backward?

One reason is to protect their tails from injury by other animals, such as dogs and cats, that might want to catch them for food. Climbing backwards means the squirrel's tail is between its body and the tree trunk or branch and not as accessible to predators.

Their Tail Helps Them Balance

Squirrels can move very quickly once they start climbing because they use their tail as a balancing prop during their high-speed climbs. They also use it as a sort of built-in safety rope. Should they fall, their tail serves as a sort of parachute to slow their rate of descent.

The tails themselves are very strong and flexible; this allows them to hang upside down from branches without fear of breaking or injuring themselves. They can also climb down trees using their tail as a brake.

Squirrels Are Lightweight

When climbing trees, it’s helpful to be lighter in weight, so gravity doesn’t pull you down. The high activity level of squirrels and their fast metabolism keeps them lean. This gives them the ability to scale trees and escape predators more easily.

They're Skilled Jumpers

When a squirrel is escaping a predator, their powerful hind legs can propel them onto a tree quickly and easily. Squirrels can jump up to twenty feet, which is impressive considering they only weigh 10–20 pounds. Their lower leg power and agility make them a natural for tree climbing and jumping from branch to branch.

Squirrels Are Well Adapted to Tree Climbing

Now you know why squirrels are such skilled tree climbers and that they’re anatomically built to do so. Their feet and claws are optimized for climbing and their tails help them stay balanced. The next time you’re on a walk, stop and watch a squirrel climbing a tree. Notice how nimble and agile they are. They're doing what they're built to do!


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