Fascinating Facts About Squirrels

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

squirrel

Story at-a-glance -

  • Squirrels are quick and excellent learners, with mental flexibility that allows them to progressively change their tactics in order to increase their efficiency in finding nuts
  • Squirrels are organized in their stashing, using a technique known as “chunking,” in which the nuts are arranged and buried according to their type or other trait
  • If a squirrel thinks he’s being observed, he may pretend to bury a nut, but walk away with it still in his mouth, only to bury it in a new spot
  • There are two kinds of white squirrels, those caused by albinism and those caused by leucism, a condition that causes a partial loss of pigmentation that affects the skin and hair but not the eyes

There are more than 200 species of squirrels in the world, living on every continent except for Australia.1 Ranging in size from 5 to 36 inches long, these resourceful rodents may live in burrows underground, but the type most often seen in the U.S. are tree squirrels, which are more at home high among the branches.

While some people view squirrels primarily as pests who steal the birdseed out of their backyard feeders, squirrels are beneficial to the environment and have an impressive set of skills that may surprise you.

Squirrels Are Excellent Learners

Tree squirrels don't hibernate. Rather, they stash food in hundreds of different locations to feed on during the cold winter months. Researchers from the University of Exeter in England predicted that squirrels must therefore be quick learners "because learning spatial arrays is crucial for them in order to recover their food caches in the winter months,"2 and this is exactly what their study revealed.3

When presented with a task — a box with 12 sunken wells, four of which were hollow and two of which contained hazelnuts — the squirrels quickly learned the most efficient method for getting to the nuts. They also showed mental flexibility and progressively changed their tactics in order to increase their efficiency in finding the nuts.

What's more, separate research showed squirrels remembered how to solve a problem they'd been given nearly two years earlier. In the initial study, squirrels learned to press a lever to get a nut in an average of eight seconds at first, but this shortened to two seconds on subsequent attempts. Twenty-two months later, it took the squirrels an average of three seconds to get the nut.4

Squirrels clearly have excellent long-term memory to help them find their winter nut stash, but the research suggests they're also capable of remembering techniques even when they haven't used them for a long time.5

Squirrels Organize Their Nut Stashes

If you've ever observed a squirrel burying nuts, it may seem like a random series of events. In reality, some researchers believe squirrels are quite organized in their stashing, using a technique known as "chunking," in which the nuts are arranged and buried according to their type or other traits.6

Squirrels can not only locate nuts they've buried based on odor but also remember where they've buried the nuts.7 This is essential, since they can't always rely on scent alone, such as after a heavy snowfall. In addition to chunking, squirrels may use trees and other landmarks to help them revisit their caches.8

Squirrels Help to Plant Trees and Can Deceive Other Squirrels

Squirrels have a complex relationship with oak trees, caching the acorns of certain species of oak trees but not others. However, while squirrels are experts at finding their buried nuts, they won't recover every single one. Those left behind are able to grow into new trees.9 Some squirrels also eat mushrooms and spread the spores in their feces.10

Also intriguing, squirrels are known to go to great lengths to keep their nut caches safe — even going so far as to try to deceive their competition. Squirrels will happily eat other squirrels' nuts if they can find them. So if a squirrel thinks he's being observed, he may pretend to bury the nut, but walk away with it still in his mouth, only to bury it in a new spot.11

Other squirrels will bury a nut and then act like they're burying it again somewhere else, in some cases moving the same nut up to five times. These examples of behavioral deception were previously only observed in primates,12 showing once again that squirrels are far more complex creatures than meets the eye.

Their brain power is only rivaled by their athletic capabilities, which allow them to leap 10 times the length of their body and rotate their ankles 180 degrees, so they can climb down trees headfirst.13

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There Are White Squirrels

There are two kinds of white squirrels, those caused by albinism and those caused by leucism. Albinism is a congenital condition caused by an absence of melanin, which gives color to the skin, hair and eyes. A white albino squirrel can be spotted because of its red eyes, which contain no color and therefore appear red due to the underlying blood vessels.

Leucism is a condition that causes a partial loss of pigmentation that affects the skin and hair but not the eyes, so while the squirrel's fur may be white (or have patches of white), its eyes will remain dark. Typically, a sighting of a white squirrel is considered rare, but their true numbers are still being discovered.

No matter what type of squirrel you have the pleasure of sighting, know that they're engaging in a number of fascinating decisions at any given time — from deciding whether to eat or cache a nut to remembering its precise location and keeping it safe from competitors.

If a squirrel is digging in your lawn, don't view it as a pest, think of the digging as a natural form of beneficial aeration. To prevent a squirrel from digging up your vegetable or flower garden, simply lay down a piece of wire mesh with holes big enough for plants to sprout through but small enough to discourage digging.