Squirrels Faking it with their Nuts

20 January 2008


Squirrels sequestering nuts and other nutritious morsels is a common site in autumn. But, according to US researchers, all is not what it seems - because up to 20% of the time squirrels are faking it, and their elaborate burial displays are just to put other hungry individuals off the scent.

Sciurus vulgaris, a European squirrelWriting in Animal Behaviour, Wilkes University researcher Michael Steele and his colleagues watched the antics of over 100 grey squirrels and compared how the animals' behaviour changed when the team began pilfering their cached food.  The squirrels reacted to the food thefts by doubling the number of fake burial displays they performed, hiding food in locations that were much harder to raid, and also eating more of it straight away.

These results seem to suggest that squirrels might behave like western scrub jays, which also hide food and pay close attention to who is watching them as they do so.  If they find themselves under scrutiny they return later and move their food caches.  This has led some researchers to propose that the birds have a "theory of mind" - in other words an understanding of the intention to steal - so now it looks like squirrels fall into the same mould!


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