Each summer urban dwellers arrive in our nations majestic parks eager to see something grander than pigeons or the occasional sparrow. Most often their wishes are granted. Tourists exploring Alaska’s Fjords National Park aboard small cruisers can be heard shouting, “Over there! Do you see the Killer Whale? Wow, its black and white!” families’, driving through Lamar Valley in Yellowstone, children might declare “Mom! A buffalo! and it’s chasing someone” and along the shores of the San Juan Islands in Washington the tactile can be observed holding up treasures from the tide pools and sharing “I found a starfish! Ouch… maybe it’s a crab?” The excitement is always welcomed, but to the diehard naturalists the comments are like an off pitch high note struck by an adolescent boy in a school musical. What is it that the naturalist is grimacing about; the incorrect use of animal terms of course. Our Arctic friend is no longer called the killer whale, unless you are a seal, but orcas instead; a less frightening description approved by Sea World. The true buffalo is only found in Africa and Australia, out West we call them bison after their scientific name Bison bison. Even the starfish goes by a new name, the sea star, since it is not a fish, but an echinoderm.
For me the above examples are minor faux pas, barely registering on my radar. Only one linguistic error will echo in my mind, and it all has all to do with the golden mantled ground squirrel. This small mammal is commonly observed along trails from the awe inspiring Canadian Rockies southward to Yosemite, with its glacier carved granite faces. Often these small rodents come in close contact with humans, where they graciously stand on their hind legs and pose for photos. It has taken the parks years to train them all. I most often see these critters while walking with guest along the boardwalks near Old Faithful. Just before the geyser erupts, crowds gather, and this is when it happens, innocently, but alarming nonetheless. Some cute little girl yells “A chipmunk!” Upon hearing this cry, pain radiates through my brain as if I had guzzled an extra cold Slurpee. How I ponder could they confuse my furry little friend with the whimsical chipmunk? The two do belong to sciuridae, the squirrel family. The members of this family include shorter tailed ground squirrels, bushy tailed tree squirrels, flying (gliding) squirrels, robust marmots, Phil being the most famous, and the minuscule chipmunks. These squirrels all look quite different. I think the confusion lies in the markings. The Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel is not bland like other ground squirrels but instead has a white stripe outlined in black. This coloration is similar to striped markings on the chipmunks, with an exception, the chipmunks’ markings continue to the cheek. Also, chipmunks are smaller and slim, were as the Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel is larger and more portly, like Santa. To the amateur eye these may seem subtle, but to the naturalist, these details matter. And just when I thought I had the squirrels figured out, while hiking in the Canadian Rockies, I saw a Columbian Ground Squirrel high in a larch tree. Hmmm…can ground squirrels be in trees??
Joe Catron, Science Teacher and Austin Adventure Guide