My wife likes to organize things. Items in our pantry are grouped together based on what is in the box or can. All of the spaghetti is stacked together on the same shelf as the spaghetti sauce. All of the soups are together on their own shelf. All the cereal is together on its own shelf. Etc. etc. etc. When I put something in the wrong place, I am chastised, and she expresses amazement at my male inability to understand the importance of organization. I recently learned that fox squirrels do the same thing.
I have often wondered why the large female squirrel I see outside my office window is chattering at the smaller male squirrel who is dashing around seemingly looking for something. It is the dead of winter here, so thoughts of baby squirrels don’t seem to be a reasonable explanation.
A recent experiment done at the University of California-Berkeley may give an answer. Squirrels sort their nuts by a process called “chunking.” Researchers at the university used GPS devices to track 45 male and female fox squirrels for two years. They gave the squirrels different kinds of nuts–almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, and walnuts. The squirrels buried the nuts in unique spots with each nut having its own location.
The researchers made the nuts available one at a time, at different times of the year, and in different locations. The pattern of distribution caused the researchers to conclude that “the squirrels use a surprisingly flexible and sophisticated memorizing strategy to cache their nuts.” I have noticed that our grey squirrels here in Michigan do the same thing. I recently found a cache of sunflower seeds that came from my bird feeders, and later found a cache of acorns. There were no sunflower seeds with the acorns and no acorns with the sunflower seeds.
Fox squirrels gather between 3,000 and 10,000 nuts a year. By using the chunking method, they know where to find each nut type. That simplifies locating food sources. Like my wife, the squirrels know where to find each unique meal item.
We need to re-examine the old idea that squirrels bury nuts at random in scattered places. There is a design feature built into the squirrels’ DNA that assures the squirrel of a more efficient way to find its stored food. Programming requires intelligence, and DNA has to be programmed to work. God has programmed all kinds of instructions into the DNA of His creatures, and this seems to be one more example of how well the process works.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
Reference: The original study was by Dr. Mikel Delgado and was contained in the journal Royal Society Open Science. It was referenced and summarized in National Wildlife, February/March 2018.