Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Underestimated Urban Rodent

squirrel in snow

Typically thought of as an invasive species, a common
public place pest, or just not thought of at all, the
Sciurus carolinensis, or more familiarly known as
the Eastern gray squirrel, has been the subject of
many recent studies. Although gray squirrels may not
seem intelligent when they’re frantically scurrying from
one acorn to the next, they have exhibited behaviors
of reasoning and mental flexibility that have made
researchers more inclined to study them.

Lately, the Central Park squirrel census has taken on the challenge of creating the first ever accurate tally of the squirrel population in the New York City park. The most frequent response to this comprehensive census is simply, why? The director of the Central Park squirrel census, writer Jamie Allen, blames the ubiquity of the Eastern gray for the past lack of interest and noted that “a new study will come out that will tell us about their intelligence or behavior patterns that we should have figured out a long time ago.” In the past few years, squirrels have been found to put on a great show of thrusting non-existent acorns into hiding-holes in order to throw off other onlooking squirrels and birds, and the deception even extends to covering the fake nut with soil and leaves. Last year, University of California Berkeley researchers determined that squirrels practice “spatial chunking”, in which they sort nuts by size, type, taste, and possibly nutritional value. Another study by the University of Exeter  designed to test the squirrels’ intelligence clearly showed improvement over successive attempts with the test, adapting new tactics and improving efficiency over time to reap the hidden rewards.

With such ingenuity and flexibility in learning, it is easy to understand how the Eastern gray squirrel is so well adapted to and abundant in our society in comparison to other animals. The recent studies not only display that squirrels are capable of learning, but they indicate exactly how they learn. This greater insight allows us to understand how animals in general and squirrels in particular learn about changes in their environment and makes us better equipped to deal with other invasive species. Could it also give us a better idea on how squirrels or other animals could adapt to impacts of climate change?

Posted by Jamie Courtney (Group A)


  1. This study and your post on it seem to have a lot of really intriguing layers. The information gained here looks like it could have a large impact on so many issues we deal with everyday. Who would've thought squirrels could tell us so much? I'm wondering if learning how these squirrels learn could have insight into bettering ways in which we learn? I can imagine there is some crossover but maybe we will discover some new methods similar to theirs that would have higher efficacy for many people.

    Alexandra McGuire

  2. It is a very interesting post. In the past, I just knew that squirrels could store different kinds of nuts and corns for food. I am surprised that grey squirrels can also have the intelligence to distinguish nuts by sizes and types. Maybe this high intelligence helped grey squirrels adapt to and survive in the environment. I also wonder how the University of Exeter designed the study to test the squirrels?

    Posted by Muchen Liu

    1. The study invented by the University of Exeter involved a box containing 12 sunken wells arranged in a circle, four of which were hallow, and two of those four wells held hidden hazelnuts. These hazelnuts were placed diagonally across from one another. The least effective approach to finding the second hazelnut would be to continue to the next subsequent well in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. Therefore, the most successful attempt would be to check the well directly diagonal of the well containing the first hazelnut. As I said before, the squirrels involved in the study showed clear improvement as they continued taking the test several times and adjusted their behavior relatively quickly.

  3. The behaviors observed in squirrels was very interesting to read about, thanks for sharing! I think it is great that they put forth the effort to study a species that many seem to overlook. It makes me wonder what other species may show similar degrees of intelligence and signs of learning. This could give use great insight as to how animals adapt to and thrive in particular environments.

    Posted by Alexandra Rios

    1. Exactly! The greater insight on how adaptable certain animals are to their ever-changing environment is what lead me to the inkling that some of this research could possibly provide a greater understanding about and foresight with the seemingly inevitable impacts of climate change.

  4. Squirrels are incredibly hilarious and fascinating animals! It always amuses me to think that squirrels plant thousands of trees per year, simply because of all the buried nuts they forgot about! Mice and rats are closely related to squirrels, and it is well known in the scientific community how smart these rodents are, too! I would be curious to know how the intelligence of squirrels would compare to the intelligence of mice or rats. Furthermore, I recently learned that pigeons are also incredibly smart animals! I wonder if there are environmental factors, such as living in an urban environment, that might lead to higher intelligence.

    Posted by: Hayley Fecko

    1. After writing this blog post, I have a new perspective for how I see the squirrels that inhabit our campus! Animals that are better equipped for urban living (such as squirrels, mice, rats, pigeons) have a bad reputation for being dirty and/or inane, but when you think about it, the only reason some of them are subjected to those behaviors and conditions is because we created it for them. Because of this, it is ironic that we view these creatures as such inferiors.

  5. You said that squirrels are intelligently adaptive. You said people dont care about them because they are everywhere all the time. The things most impactful and consuming in our lives tend to be adaptive and also harmful. We are a good example of this relative the world. Other examples include diseases or mosquitos. These things are important to us because they are harmful, but its their flexibility that’s special. Ironically, the reason that we haven't cared about squirrels is why we should.

    Posted by “Takoda Nordoff”