The next time you see a squirrel stashing a bounty of nuts, you should give them a round of applause. That’s because they haven’t just chosen these nuts at random, but have actually organized them methodically, according to new research from the University of California-Berkeley.
Researchers claim that squirrels are capable of “chunking,” a cognitive method that humans and other animals have to organize spatial, linguistic, numeric or other data, like sub folders on a computer. The study was published in Royal Society Open Science.
Researchers tracked the caching habits of 45 squirrels – male and female reddish gray fox squirrels – while they hid almonds, pecans, hazelnuts and walnuts on the college’s campus. Squirrels are known as scatter-hoarders, since they stash their finds in separate, small caches to reduce chances a natural disaster or another animal could decimate their goodies.
“This is the first demonstration of chunking in a scatter-hoarding animal, and also suggests that squirrels use flexible strategies to store food depending on how they acquire food,” study lead author Mikel Delgado said in a statement.
Squirrels use chunking like people put away groceries – i.e., fruit on one shelf and vegetables on another – so they can easily find them later, study senior author Lucia Jacobs said in the same statement.
Scientists conducted location and nut sequencing experiments on the squirrels. For one exercise they gave each of the squirrels 16 nuts (one by one). They fed some at the location the squirrel gathered the previous nut given to them, though they fed others just at a central location the squirrels could go back to for more.
As for the nut sequencing, some squirrels received four almonds, then four pecans, and so on, compared to others that were fed at random. Researchers kept tails on the squirrels – so to speak – via handheld GPS navigators.
Researchers discovered the squirrels that gathered nuts at a certain spot often organized them by nut species, as opposed to those that found nuts at multiple locations. These squirrels stayed away from areas they had buried their nuts before.
Every year, fox squirrels stockpile 3,000 to 10,000 nuts at a minimum.
“These observations suggest that when lacking the cognitive anchor of a central food source, fox squirrels utilize a different and perhaps simpler heuristic (problem-solving approach) to simply avoid the areas where they had previously cached,” according to the study.
There you have it: The squirrels are all right.
Source: US News