Issue: October 21, 2006

Something is burrowing in my garden - Rock squirrel


I have a problem with a burrowing animal that looks like a large rat, both in color and shape of face. I never get to see the whole animal because it is always underground, making very visible diggings throughout the garden. I am very sure it is not a gopher. I live in Santa Fe in a house built last year. I have seen evidence of these animals all over Santa Fe, but your other articles say moles do not live in New Mexico. Can you tell me what they are? Surely they are not chupacabras?
- Edward H.


I think it is safe to say that you don't have chupacabras in your garden. The descriptions on the internet and on television don't fit your description. (I suspect you were joking with this statement.)

To get more information, I talked to NMSU's Extension Wildlife Specialist, Jon Boren. He agreed with me that it is more likely that there is a rock squirrel in your garden. The rock squirrel is a common, ugly (compared to other squirrels), rat-like, burrowing animal that is native in your area. It is larger than a gopher and has "open burrows," whereas the gopher usually doesn't open its burrow so that you could see its head. It likes rocky areas but will invade a garage and in many ways behave like a rat. I think that is what you have seen in your garden.

There are rats in Santa Fe, but the fact that what you described was burrowing in your garden suggests that the rock squirrel is a more likely culprit.

The rock squirrel has another very bad characteristic. It is host to a flea that is an effective transmitter of bubonic plague. Don't encourage the rock squirrel to remain in your garden and don't handle the squirrel (alive or dead). If the squirrel dies, the fleas that were dependent on it will look for another warm-blooded host. You are not a favored host, but you are warm-blooded, so if you approach the dead squirrel, the fleas will sense the heat of your body. They will jump to you and if the rock squirrel was infected with plague, the fleas can transmit the disease to you. The fleas can also transmit plague to your family pets, which can then give the plague to you and your family.

I don't want to create panic with the above discussion, but I do want to encourage caution. If you do not live in an area known to have plague, there is little chance for you to become infected, but caution is still advised. If the squirrels die, and you do not know the reason (attack by pets, wild animals, poisoning, etc.), contact your county health officials rather than approach the dead squirrel yourself. They can treat the dead squirrel to kill any fleas before disposing of the carcass.

For more information contact your county Extension Agent or local Health Department. You can also get a copy of Dr. Boren's publication on rock squirrels from your County Extension Service office or at

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Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email:, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.


For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms and the NMSU Horticulture Publications page.

Send gardening questions to Southwest Yard and Garden - Attn: Dr. Marisa Thompson at, or at the Desert Blooms Facebook.

Please copy your County Extension Agent and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!