Barbara M. Leitner, Philip Leitner
Western North American Naturalist 77 (1), 1-13, (21 February 2017) https://doi.org/10.3398/064.077.0102
The Mohave ground squirrel (Xerospermophilus mohavensis) is endemic to the western Mojave Desert of California. It is listed as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act, yet there is little published information on its habitat requirements. We studied the diet of Mohave ground squirrels at 4 sites in desert scrub habitat in Inyo County, California, primarily by microhistological analysis of 754 samples of fecal pellets collected from live-trapped animals. Over all sites and seasons, shrub foliage was the largest component of the diet (39.8% relative density) and mainly derived from several taxa of Chenopodiaceae: winterfat (Krascheninnikovia lanata), spiny hopsage (Grayia spinosa), and saltbushes (Atriplex spp.). Forb leaves were next in importance (34.1% relative density), especially from Fabaceae (Astragalus and Lupinus), Polemoniaceae (Gilia and Linanthus), and Asteraceae. Flowers, pollen, and seeds were also major components (20.3% relative density). Leaves composed nearly all of the diet in spring, whereas pollen, flowers, and seeds made up about a third of the diet in summer. Following dry winters when annual forbs were limited, Mohave ground squirrels depended primarily on foliage from perennial shrubs and forbs. Following wet winters when spring annuals were abundant and most plant species flowered and set seed prolifically, squirrels consumed a high proportion of leaves plus flowers, pollen, and seeds of annual forbs. Mohave ground squirrels reproduced only after winter rainfall >80 mm that resulted in a standing crop of herbaceous annuals ≥100 kg · ha-1. Mohave ground squirrels consumed very little of the nonnative annual plant biomass present on our study sites (Erodium, Salsola, Bromus, and Schismus contributed <3% overall to the diet). Conservation implications include the following: (1) priority should be given to protecting habitats supporting preferred perennial forage plants, including winterfat and spiny hopsage; (2) habitats with an understory dominated by native annual forbs have higher value than those dominated by nonnative plants, especially annual grasses; and (3) if climate change results in lower and less regular winter precipitation, suitable habitat for Mohave ground squirrels may be reduced and fragmented in the drier portions of the geographic range.