Fox Squirrels Diversify Their Nut-Savings

Fox squirrels on the UC Berkeley campus are the participants in this study. (Image credit: University of California, Berkeley)

When fox squirrels hoard nuts, they have a long-term savings strategy. The critters on campus at the University of California, Berkeley diversify with acorns, pine nuts, walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts, according to researchers at the school who are trying to get inside the squirrel mind.

Mikel Delgado, a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley, and a team of undergrads are currently tracking up to 70 fox squirrels on campus, studying how they hoard and retrieve different kinds of nuts.

"We're trying to find out what kinds of strategies they might be using to assess the quality of each nut and what kind of investment they want to make in it," Delgado said in a statement. "And we want to know how they remember where they hide all those nuts."

Not all the trees on campus produce nuts year-round, and since squirrels don't hibernate, they need to save up for the cold months.

"Think of them as little bankers depositing money and spreading it out in different funds, and doing some management of those funds," Delgado said.

The researchers want to find out what kinds of spatial cues the squirrels use to find those nuts later on. The team is using GPS to map all of the nut-hiding spots on campus and has so far compiled more than 1,000 locations. The group is also looking at how the squirrels tackle frustration — for example, how they approach a locked box after being trained how to open unlocked boxed.

"They're clever and very persistent at solving problems," Delgado said. Her research is taking place in the lab of cognitive psychologist Lucia Jacobs and a paper on her findings is forthcoming.

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