From Alvin and the Chipmunks to Disney’s Chip and Dale, cartoonists have characterized chipmunks as one of nature’s most lovable rodents. Here are 11 illuminating facts about what their real-life counterparts are like.
1. Chipmunks are squirrels.
Though you might consider them much more appealing than their bushy-tailed kin, chipmunks are technically squirrels, too. They’re part of the squirrel family, Sciuridae, as are prairie dogs, woodchucks, and marmots. Chipmunks are the smallest member of the family, which could help explain why we find them so cute.
2. Chipmunk likely comes from an Ojibwa word.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, chipmunk derives from the Ojibwa word ajidamoo, which actually described the American red squirrel rather than any chipmunk species. Other early iterations included chitmunk, chipminck, chipmonk, chipmuck, and chipmuk.
The French word for chipmunk is tamia—a reflection of chipmunks’ genus, Tamias. But in Quebec, the striped critter has also been called un suisse. That term, meaning a Swiss, is thought to have been inspired by the striped uniforms of the Pope’s Swiss Guard.
3. Chipmunks’ stripes may help them survive.
In a 2016 study, scientists found that a pigment-suppressing gene appears to be responsible for the stripes on the Eastern chipmunk and four-striped grass mouse. Since mice and chipmunks split from their common ancestor roughly 70 million years ago, the research suggests that this could be a case of convergent evolution—when different organisms evolve with similar traits (e.g. how humans and koalas both have fingerprints). The chipmunks and mice included in the study are both diurnal, so it’s possible that they evolved with stripes to help obscure them from diurnal predators.
4. Chipmunks are introverts, so to speak.
Chipmunks aren’t social creatures: They build separate burrows and spend most of their time alone. But that’s not to say they don’t cover the same ground. If there’s enough food, water, and space in a certain woodsy acre of land, some 30 chipmunks might all be living there. And they do, of course, pal around during mating season in the spring.
5. Chipmunks have different warning calls for different predators.
Despite their solitude, chipmunks send out warning calls to other chipmunks in the area when danger approaches. In fact, research has suggested that woodchucks also tune into these alerts—and chipmunks heed woodchucks’ warnings even more frequently.
If the predator is on the ground—which could be a snake, fox, raccoon, or any number of other creatures—the chipmunk will release a string of high-pitched sounds known as “chips.” If it’s a hawk, owl, or other aerial predator, the chipmunk will emit much lower-pitched sounds, called “chucks.”
6. Chipmunks hibernate, but not like bears do.
As evidenced by Katmai National Park’s annual Fat Bear Week, bears pack on an impressive amount of weight before hibernation so their bodies have fat to burn during the food-less winter months. Chipmunks hibernate, too—but they don’t bulk up beforehand. Instead, they hoard a bunch of seeds and nuts in their burrows and awaken every so often to eat.
7. Chipmunks aren’t picky eaters.
A chipmunk’s diet isn’t confined to seeds and nuts. The omnivorous rodents also chow down on fungi, fruit, insects, worms, tubers, flower buds, and snails. They’re not opposed to snagging a bird egg or newborn baby bird, either.
8. Chipmunk cheeks are capacious.
Like other types of ground squirrels (not to mention hamsters, monkeys, and platypuses), chipmunks can stuff a lot in their expandable cheek pouches. According to National Geographic, the cache can sometimes match a chipmunk’s own body weight. Biologist Bernd Heinrich once tested out the capacity himself after finding a roadkill victim and filling its cheeks with sunflower seeds. He managed roughly 60 seeds per cheek.
9. All but one chipmunk species live in North America.
Of the 25 known chipmunk species, 24 are native to North America. The lone outlier, the Siberian chipmunk (Tamias sibiricus), lives across Russia and eastern Asia. People in other parts of Europe began keeping Siberian chipmunks as pets during the 1960s, and the creature made its way to the wild there, too. Because the Siberian chipmunk has been known to harbor ticks that carry Lyme disease, Europe has since labeled it an invasive species.
10. It’s illegal to keep a chipmunk as a pet in certain states.
When it comes to picking out pets, chipmunks may not be as in-demand as dogs or axolotls. But they’re technically legal to own in certain states, including Florida, New Jersey, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. They’re legal in Oregon, too, as long as you acquire a Prohibited Species Permit first. In Arizona, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, on the other hand, chipmunks fall on the "illegal" list.
11. Chipmunks can catch the plague.
Plague—including the bubonic plague and a couple less common strains—is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which fleas pass to their rodent hosts (and beyond). It’s not just rats: Prairie dogs, squirrels, voles, rabbits, chipmunks, and other rodents can carry it, too. In August 2021, certain sections of Lake Tahoe were temporarily closed to visitors after chipmunks in the area tested positive for the bubonic plague. These days, the disease can be treated with antibiotics if caught early enough, so it’s not something to panic about. But it is a good reason to leave wild rodents alone, and call a doctor if you start to feel flu-like symptoms after a camping trip or hike.