Commonly called gophers, Richardson ground squirrels are plump, yellowish-grey squirrels with short tails. They prefer open prairie where the vegetation is short and the ground is dry and easy to excavate. They are found across the entire prairie and in the southern boreal plain. The species is common in Alberta despite the cultivation of the grassland habitat and efforts to control their population. They live in wide-ranging colonies that may be as dense as 20 squirrels per hectare.
Each adult digs its own burrow system comprised of many tunnels that may be as long as 14 m and as deep as 1.8m. Tunnels lead to storage, hibernation and nesting chambers. The nest chamber is in the deepest part of the tunnel system.
The seeds, leaves, roots, and flowers of prairie plants make up the largest part of their diet. They also eat some insects (such as grasshoppers) and, when available, carrion, including other ground squirrels, but they do not kill to eat. They eat crop plants such as wheat and oats, and garden plants, especially when no native prairie vegetation is available.
Males emerge from hibernation in March. Mating occurs when the females emerge in late March to early April. The female gives birth 23 days after mating to 6-8 young.
Adult males begin hibernation as early as June or July. By the end of July most of the adult females have begun to hibernate. Soon afterwards, in August, the young females begin hibernation, but young males remain active into September and even, occasionally, as late as October or November. Males are very aggressive in the mating season and are often wounded. Males suffer very high mortality and only a few of them live more than two years. Females live longer, often for three years and occasionally for up to five years.
These rodents are an important prey species for many other organisms. For example, the population and productivity of the ferruginous hawk depends heavily on the abundance of Richardson's ground squirrels. Swainson's hawks, prairie falcons, foxes, coyotes, weasels, badgers and rattlesnakes also commonly prey on this species. Tunnels built by Richardson's ground squirrels are used for shelter by many species, including the burrowing owl. The Richardson's ground squirrel is recognized by ecologists as a keystone species, providing food and burrows for many other species.