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