Why Do Squirrels Lie Flat?

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

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.

Reasons why squirrels sploot

Squirrels sploot for several reasons: to cool down, to stay safe, or simply to get comfortable.


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Squirrels sploot to cool down

One primary reason squirrels lie flat is to cool down, especially during the summer months. 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.

This strategy of reducing the squirrel’s heat load is called ‘heat dumping’.

A fox squirrel lying with legs stretched in the grass.
A fox squirrel splooting in the grass on a hot summer day. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Squirrels will find tree limbs, shaded pavement, patches of grass, 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 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.  

When startled, lying flat can help squirrels blend into their surroundings, making them less visible to predators. This flattened posture can give them a few critical moments to decide on their next move.

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.

Lying flat can help to camouflage the SQUIRREL

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).

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.

Lying flat helps to protect vital organs

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 eating in an exposed location, lying flat allows squirrels to remain as inconspicuous as possible. This position makes it harder for predators, such as hawks, owls, and ground-based threats like cats or foxes, to spot them. By minimizing their profile against the ground, squirrels reduce the likelihood of attracting unwanted attention.

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.

Squirrels like to sun bathe

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

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.

Sun bathing by squirrels also has some practical applications. Sunbathing can help control parasites such as mites and fleas. The heat from the sun can make the environment less hospitable for these pests, helping to keep the squirrel’s fur cleaner and healthier.

Squirrels Lie Flat to Rest

Sometimes, splooting is simply a comfortable resting position. Squirrels might choose to lie flat on a tree branch or the ground to relax, stretch out, and rest their muscles.

Lying flat in a tree when resting helps prevent the squirrel from falling out of the tree. By spreading their body weight evenly and gripping the bark with their limbs, squirrels can secure themselves in place. This position is especially useful when they need to rest or sleep, as it reduces the risk of losing balance and falling from high branches.

The prone posture also provides the sleeping squirrel with some protection from predators by camouflaging itself against the bark of the tree. When a squirrel lies flat against the tree bark, it becomes less visible to predators such as hawks, owls, and larger mammals. This camouflaging effect is helped by the squirrel remaining perfectly still which allows it to blend in with the texture and color of the tree bark. 

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.

A range of reasons why squirrels sploot

Understanding why squirrels lie flat can give us insight into their behavior and adaptability. Whether it’s for cooling down, staying safe, or just getting comfortable, splooting is a versatile and interesting behavior observed in these agile creatures.

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

This article was originally written on January 7, 2022 and has since been updated.

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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.