Have you seen a Franklin's?

If you were north of the Missouri River, and saw a squirrel scurrying across the road that didn't quite look like a gray squirrel, you may have spotted a rare Franklin's ground squirrel.

During the summer of 2002, I drove more than 7,000 miles in north Missouri visiting sites where people had reported seeing these elusive squirrels. One hot, sunny day in July, I was on the border of The Nature Conservancy's Dunn Ranch Preserve in Harrison County with Paul Frese of the Natural Resource Conservation Service. He was showing me several places where he had recently spotted Franklin's ground squirrels.

Paul's interest is reptiles so, in return, I took him to an abandoned badger den where I had seen three prairie skinks in the day before. The skinks were gone, but as we walked away, I glanced back and noticed a Franklin's ground squirrel at the edge of the road near the badger den. We held absolutely still as the mottled brown and black body sped across Highway M and into a narrow strip of dense vegetation on the other side.

In less than a minute, the squirrel reappeared with a mouse hanging from its mouth. It scurried back across Highway M and disappeared in the grass near the badger den. I had read that most squirrel species occasionally eat meat, and according to researchers, about one quarter of most Franklin's ground squirrels' diet consists of meat, but I had never before seen a squirrel prey on another mammal. I guessed it would be sharing the mouse with its young.

A Franklin's ground squirrel (sometimes called a gray gopher or whistling ground squirrel) is the same size as a gray squirrel and has the same general appearance, but when you look at them closely you can see differences between the two. A gray squirrel has a solid gray body with a white belly. A Franklin's ground squirrel has a grayish head, the top of its body is mottled brown and black, its underside is yellowish, and its rump is yellowish-red. A Franklin's has shorter ears that do not protrude over the top of its head. The gray squirrel has a longer and bushier tail than the Franklin's. Also, Franklin's have cheek pouches and a band of white around their eyes, which gray squirrels lack. Franklin's ground squirrels (Spermophilus franklinii) are in the Sciuridae (meaning "squirrel") family, along with six other species that live in