Cache 'em outside: Squirrels are so much smarter than you might expect

They way they squirrel things away is changing what we knew about these furry furrowers

They way they squirrel things away is changing what we knew about these furry furrowers

We humans have a tumultuous relationship with squirrels. They're in and out of our yards, they sometimes border on being a pest but they're also admired for their adorability (though they may a little more dangerous than we think). Often times, these creatures will even go rogue, pulling off odd behaviours that give them instant viral status, like Taco Squirrel, Alberta's toilet paper-stealing squirrel and the ever elusive albino squirrel. But for all their oddities, squirrels are far more sophisticated than we usually give them credit for. A new study examining the way that they store nuts is the first to fully shed light on squirrels' amazing cognitive abilities.

The University Of Berkeley study, which was recently published in Royal Society Open Science, set out to monitor the nut-storing patterns of the fox squirrel, a common species native of North America. Researchers studied 45 of these squirrels in the wild through a series of distributing and gathering trials. One researcher would distribute a nut to the squirrel, another would record the location the squirrel picked it up and a third researcher would track the storing (or caching) location. Each squirrel was given 16 nuts of different kids one at a time, either in a row (four almonds, four hazelnuts, four pecans, four walnuts), or in a randomized order. Some squirrels were given each nut in the same location, while others were gifted theirs from different areas.

The results showed that the squirrels cached their nuts in different places through a process known as "chunking". Chunking is a mental process humans often use to organize and remember large amounts of information. If you go into your garage (supposing it's somewhat organized), you probably have items gathered in their own areas; hockey sticks are all together, tools are in a toolbox, motor oil is up on the top shelf and so on. This way, our brains don't have to remember exactly where each item is, we just remember that the oil is up on the shelf and the tools are in the toolbox — simply grouping the items by category makes things more manageable for our minds. Researchers found that the squirrels used this method to organize their nuts, categorizing them by type or the order in which they were received. With that in mind, it's safe to assume that squirrels likely have the ability to gather, chunk and store the thousands nuts they encounter each year based on other specifications, like size or preference, too, depending on their needs and their environment.  

However, those conducting the study only observed this chunking process amongst squirrels who gathered all their nuts from the same location (though the squirrels who gathered from different locations did take care to not store their nuts in places where they had already some buried). This behaviour led the researchers to propose that, within different circumstances, squirrels can drop the chunking method entirely and use another system when it better suits their needs.

This study is, researchers believe, the first of its kind to show such sophisticated cognitive methods in scatter-hoarding animals. The fact that the squirrels can assess the situation and seemingly turn the chunking process on and off demonstrates a higher level of understanding than we ever thought before. Certainly, these findings beget more research and, luckily, there's more than enough people already interested in uncovering the behaviours of these creatures who can pick up where this study left off. The Yukon's Kluane Red Squirrel Project, a partnership between five universities for researchers to live on site and study squirrels, has not only delved into caching behaviour as well, but managed to uncover more personality quirks, like how red squirrels become less aggressive over time and how female squirrels seemingly never reject sex. So next time you shoo them off your lawn and then forget where you put your broom, remember: squirrels might just be slightly smarter than you.