Why Do Squirrels Lie Flat?

Caitlin Dempsey

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If you’ve ever startled a squirrel, you may notice a curious behavior.  Oftentimes, the squirrel will stop what it’s doing and lie flat on the ground.  Even when it’s not scared, you may see squirrels lying flat on the ground or on a branch in a tree.

There are several reasons for why squirrels will suddenly lie flat on the ground, a patio railing, or tree branch.

What is it Called When Squirrels Lie Flat?

The informal word for a squirrel lying down flat is called “splooting”. No one is sure where the word originated from but some believe it’s a twist on the word “splat.” Splooting is defined as the act of lying flat on the belly with the legs stretched out.

When the squirrel is splooting (or stretching out) to cool down, this is known as “heat dumping.”

Squirrels Lie Flat to Hide and Survive

While it may seem counter-intuitive to suddenly stop in the presence of a danger, the act of lying flat is a protective mechanism for squirrels.  

A red squirrel lies partially flat against the ground while carrying food in its mouth.
When a squirrel senses danger it will flatten all or part of it’s body on the ground. Red squirrel on the alert for danger. Photo: NPS/Robbie Hannawacker. Denali National Park.

First, the act of lying flat hides the lighter colored belly of a squirrel. The fur color on the outer side of a squirrel evolved to help the squirrel blend in with its environment.

Picture of a red squirrel sitting in a spruce tree, Denali National Park.
The underbelly of many tree squirrels is much lighter than its outer coast. Photo: NPS/ Robbie Hannawacker, Denali National Park

 If you’ve ever seen a squirrel against the bark of a tree, you will see how well the fur blends with tree bark (there are some exceptions where non-native squirrels have been introduced such as the melanistic eastern gray squirrel found in many communities around the United States).

Photo of a tree squirrel in Nez Perce National Historical Park.
Unlike the lighter colored underbelly, the fur on the outer body of a squirrel helps it it blend in with its environment. Photo: Nez Perce National Historical Park, NPS.

Second, the posture of lying flat on a surface also helps to protect the vital organs of a squirrel should it be attacked.  This posture also protects the genitalia of male squirrels from being bitten by other squirrels.

Lying Flat Protects the Squirrel When It’s in an Open Area

Squirrels will lie flat when eating out in an open area. Squirrels are always aware of the dangers of both land and aerial predators.

A California ground squirrel lying flat while eating seeds on the ground.
A California ground squirrel lying flat while eating seeds on the ground. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

When a squirrel is out in the open, lying flat helps the squirrel to blend in the the environment. This helps the squirrel to avoid detection from eagles and other birds of prey that may be flying overhead.

Squirrels Lie Flat to Cool Down

A hoary marmot relaxing during a sunny day on a rock ledge by the Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park, AK.
A hoary marmot relaxing during a sunny day on a rock ledge by the Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park, AK. Photo: NPS/Jen Wall

Beyond being a defensive strategy, lying flat has other benefits.  

Splooting squirrels

Known informally as splooting, the act of stretching out is a form of ‘heat dumping’. Lying flat on a cool surface helps the squirrel cool down by dissipating body heat.  

By spreading out the body on a patch of ground that is cooler than the surrounding air, the squirrels allows the superficial blood vessels to be in closer contact with the ground. The cooler ground then absorbs the excess heat from the squirrel, allowing the animal to cool down.

A ground squirrel lying flat on a gray surface.
A California ground squirrel lying flat. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Lying flat exposes as much of the squirrel’s body surface to the cooler surface so that heat can be transferred from the squirrel to the ground. This strategy of reducing the squirrel’s heat load is called ‘heat dumping’.

Squirrels will find tree limbs, shaded pavement, and other surfaces that are cooler compared to the surrounding air to press their underbellies against. The fur on the squirrel’s belly is thinner compared to the thicker fur on the outer belly.

The other way that squirrels stay cool is by building temporary dreys up in the trees that provide shade from the sun.

Squirrels Like to Sun Bathe

When the weather is cooler, spreading out exposes the squirrel’s body to as much sun as possible. This lets the squirrel warm up from the sun.

The squirrel lies with its belly on the ground, elbows on the ground, forearms outstretched, and head lifted in a sun bathing pose.

A ground squirrel sunbathing on a slab of concrete.
This California ground squirrel is sunbathing in the early spring weather. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Squirrels Lie Flat to Rest

Lying flat in a tree when resting helps prevent the squirrel from falling out of the tree.

The prone posture also provides the sleeping squirrel with some protection from predators by camouflaging itself against the bark of the tree.

A yellow-bellied marmot, a type of ground squirrel, lies on a rock.  Photo: NPS, public domain.
A yellow-bellied marmot, a type of ground squirrel, lies on a rock. Photo: NPS, public domain.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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