Who doesn’t love watching squirrels occasionally? Even folks who find them pesky can’t deny they’re pretty adorable — the way they scamper around, darting across lawns and meadows with their fluffy little tails twitching away.
But recent studies indicate that these winsome tree-dwelling rodents are a lot shrewder than we might have assumed. As members of the family Sciuridae, these cute critters evidently have some serious survival smarts.
Thanks to her childhood in Maine, psychologist Mikel Maria Delgado has always been interested in wildlife. Her background in cognition led her to explore the problem-solving behaviors of animals living in their natural environment.
Delgado’s Ph.D. dissertation was, in fact, concerned with the specific topic of squirrel behavior. As a follow-up of sorts, she decided to study campus-dwelling fox squirrels at the University of California, Berkeley.
What resulted is one of the most thorough studies of squirrel behavior ever undertaken. And let’s just say these little guys are impressively strategic.
Outwardly, we see a squirrel pick up a nut and twirl it around between its tiny front paws. “Aww,” we think, and go about our daily business.
But Delgado’s research reveals that during this turning process, the squirrel brain is busy considering countless options. It’s thinking about complex factors beyond general hunger — factors that include nutritional value, perishability, seasonal food accessibility, and the presence of environmental competitors.
It all boils down to one key question: “Do I eat this thing now, or save it for later?” Any human being who’s ever been confronted by an extra-large serving of fries, that Super Bowl wing stash, donuts at work, or their kids’ Halloween candy heap can probably relate.
Delgado conducted her experiments during the summer and fall. That’s because a squirrel’s food is generally more abundant in autumn.
If you’ve ever found peanuts in your potted plants, you already realize that squirrels often store their food for later. But Delgado’s experiments showed that a squirrel’s drive for survival has prompted it to adapt this behavior in fascinating ways.
Basically, squirrels use a strategy called “scatter” hoarding. That means they conceal tiny morsels of food all over the place, so they don’t need to defend a single massive stockpile against predators.
Suzanne MacDonald, a psychology professor and animal behaviorist at Toronto’s York University, describes this approach as pretty ingenious. “Scatter hoarding is an interesting adaptation,” she notes, “because it’s basically not putting all your eggs in one basket.”
So spinning that nut around repeatedly helps a squirrel assess the overall condition. It also indicates shape and weight, which can suggest the most efficient way to transport and/or store it.
“What’s cool is that these animals are solving problems right under our feet,” says Delgado, “and most people don’t realize it.” It’s a pretty great reminder that our everyday world is truly full of incredible wonders.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.