Squirrels – Nut Sleuths or Just Nuts?

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Crazed squirrels: we’ve all seen them. Some dashing toward you only to stop short long enough to glare with beady eyes before fleeing, others dive-bombing the dirt, coming up with their heads waving back and forth. They’re the butt of many a joke on college campuses, providing endless amusement with their antics. Some UC Berkeley students even think that the resident campus squirrels may have gobbled up substances left over from the wilder moments of Berkeley’s past, leaving them permanently crazed. However, according to a recently published PLOS ONE article from UC Berkeley, these squirrels’ seemingly odd behavior may actually have a purpose. We’ve long known that scatter-hoarders will store food they find to prepare for periods when it’s less abundant, but there is little information on the hoarding process. Turns out these squirrels might actually have a refined evaluation method based on economic variables like food availability and season. To eat now, or cache for later?

Researchers interacted with 23 fox squirrels, a species well-habituated to humans, in two sessions during the summer and fall of 2010 on the Berkeley campus, evaluating food collection behavior during both lean (summer) and bountiful (fall) seasons. The authors engaged the squirrels with calls and gestures to attract their attention, and the first squirrel to approach was the focus of that round of testing.

Each squirrel was given a series of 15 nuts, either peanuts or hazelnuts, in one of two sequences. Some were offered five peanuts, followed by five hazelnuts, then five more peanuts (PHP). Others were given five hazelnuts, five peanuts, then five hazelnuts (HPH). The purpose of this variation was to evaluate how squirrels would respond to offers of nuts with different nutritional and “economic” values at different times. Hazelnuts are, on average, larger than peanuts, and their hard shell prevents spoiling when stored long term, but peanuts tend to have more calories and protein per nut.  Researchers videotaped and coded each encounter to calculate variables, like the number of head flicks per nut, time spent pawing a nut, and time spent traveling or caching nuts. See the video below for a visual example of these behaviors.

The results showed that season and nut type significantly affected the squirrel’s response, and the squirrel’s evaluation of the nut could forecast its course of action. Predictably, the fall trial showed squirrels quickly caching most of their nuts, likely taking advantage of the season’s abundance. Squirrels ate more nuts in the summer, though they still cached the majority of hazelnuts (76% vs. 99% cached in the fall) likely due to their longer “shelf life”.

The squirrels who head-flicked at least one time in response to a nut cached it nearly 70% of the time, while those who spent more time pawing the nut tended to eat it (perhaps searching for the perfect point of entry?). The time spent caching and likelihood of head flicking were clearly linked to the type of nut received and to the trial number, with time spent evaluating a nut decreasing as the trials continued for a squirrel. The authors suggest that the changes in food assessment strategies in response to resource availability provide an example of flexible economic decision making in a nonhuman species.

So, now that squirrels are possibly making economically prudent decisions when evaluating nuts, I guess we have to give them a break when we see them running around like crazy on campus. Doesn’t mean we’ll stop laughing.

Citation: Delgado MM, Nicholas M, Petrie DJ, Jacobs LF (2014) Fox Squirrels Match Food Assessment and Cache Effort to Value and Scarcity. PLoS ONE 9(3):e92892. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0092892

Image: Squirrel by likeaduck

Video: Video S1 from the article

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8 Responses to Squirrels – Nut Sleuths or Just Nuts?

  1. Pingback: Crazed Squirrel Research? | Ash Lad Blog

  2. D says:

    Interesting experiment! Also, peanuts are not nuts, but rather Legumes.

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  3. Peter says:

    Why the head-flicking?

    Perhaps to assess whether the contents are dried up (sense mass, or sense “rattling around”)? (Were the peanuts in the shells or shelled ? Did they flick shelled peanuts ?)

    What is the purpose of the “pawing” ? The author suggested it may be to find an easy entry into the shell; perhaps it is to feel for the thinned pre-emergence exit holes that seed-insect larvae prepare on the inside of the shell (so they squirrels don’t bother to stash infested nuts) ?

    PAR

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