[ zeer-uhs ]
/ ˈzɪər əs /
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an African ground squirrel of the genus Xerus, having spiny fur, very short ears, and a long tail, and including the species X. rutilus of northeastern Africa and X. erythropus of western and central Africa.
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Origin of xerus

<New Latin (1833), apparently <Greek xērós dry, perhaps in reference to its rough fur
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is a Xerus?

Xerus is a genus that includes four different species of African ground squirrels that have spiky fur, short ears, and long tails.

In biology, a genus is a category of related organisms that often includes more than one species, which is a further division of related organisms. For example, dogs are a member of the genus Canis, which also includes species of wolves and coyotes.

Ground squirrels, true to their name, spend most of their time on or under the ground. Xerus squirrels can be found throughout the African continent, and none of them are classified as endangered so they won’t be dying out anytime soon. In fact, they are often seen as pests because they can carry diseases such as rabies and frequently enjoy eating crops. At the same time, they are pretty cute, so Africans sometimes keep them as pets.

Why is Xerus important?

The first records of the term Xerus come from around 1833. It likely comes from the Greek word xērós, meaning “dry.” This is perhaps meant to describe the rough texture of the squirrels’ fur.

The members of Xerus are the striped ground squirrel (Xerus erythropus), the South African ground squirrel (Xerus inauris), the mountain ground squirrel (Xerus princeps), and the unstriped ground squirrel (Xerus rutilus).

Xerus squirrels tend to live in dry areas that include savanas and rocky deserts and, between the four of them, cover a range that includes most of northern, eastern, and southern Africa. Xerus squirrels tend to have rough brown or reddish brown fur, white bellies, black tails, and (except for the unstriped ground squirrel) a white stripe that runs the length of their bodies.

Xerus squirrels spend most of their time eating, sunbathing, or socializing. They live up to six years. All Xerus squirrels’ diet includes nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, and bird eggs. Like the North American prairie dog, Xerus squirrels often dig underground burrows and will use these to escape predators, sleep, and protect their young.

Did you know … ?

Before the creation of the Xerus genus, the striped ground squirrel and the South African ground squirrel were members of the genus Sciurus, which at one time included every known species of squirrel. Even if they weren’t members of Xerus, the striped and South African ground squirrels wouldn’t belong in the modern Sciurus, whose 28 members are all tree squirrels.

What are real-life examples of Xerus?

This video shows striped ground squirrels wrestling:

Like most animals, African ground squirrels are usually referred to by their common name rather than their scientific name. Xerus is most likely to be used by zoologists, other scientists, or people who watch a lot of animal documentaries.

What other words are related to Xerus?

Quiz yourself!

Xerus is a genus of ground squirrels that are native to:

A. Africa
B. Europe
C. North America
D. Asia