Wednesday, August 4, 2010

It’s a Smart Squirrel World After All

Kitty, I and our dogs love/hate squirrels.  In a previous discussion and blog we sort of deduced that squirrels must be inherently evil, because its the only way to explain their annoying and bizarre behavior.  
We also convinced ourselves that our prodigal dogs, being able to sense paranormal activity (they see auras in black and white) are both fascinated and incensed by squirrels due to a “satanic” connection they have.  This revelation,  which occurred live on her morning show, changed Kitty’s dog walking and gardening habits due to a new and profound fear of squirrels.
However brand new research seems to show that squirrels may not be evil after all...they are just smart.
People who study squirrels argue that their subject is far more compelling than most people realize, and that behind the squirrel’s success lies a phenomenal “elasticity of body, brain and behavior.” 
Squirrels can leap a span 10 times the length of their body, roughly double what the best human long jumper can manage. They can rotate their ankles 180 degrees, and so keep a grip while climbing no matter which way they’re facing. 
Squirrels can learn by watching others — “cross-phyletically”, if need be. (If anyone knows what that means please email me). The researchers described how a squirrel that seemed eager to cross a busy street near the White House waited on the grass near a crosswalk until people began to cross the street, “and then it crossed the street behind them.”  Many humans aren’t this smart...required warning signs and annoyingbeeps to manage a safe crossing.  Begs the question:  Why did the squirrel cross the road?

Even Darwin didn’t get how smart squirrels are.  The researchers say their what with their keen visual system, the sensitivity and deftness with which they can manipulate objects, their sociability, chattiness and willingness to deceive, squirrels turn out to be surprisingly similar to primates. They even act like us! 
We are one evolutionary link above chimps...could we be related to squirrels as well?  Wouldn’t you love to see the opening scene from “2001 Space Odyssey” when the chimps find the “chocolate bar” re-shot with squirrels.  They’d be crawling all over the thing, mysteriously sticking to it.  Later in the scene, one of them would discover a nut cracker.
Squirrels are good family members as well. They nest communally as multigenerational, matrilineal clans, and at the end of a hard day’s forage, they greet each other with a mutual nuzzling of cheek and lip glands that looks just like a kiss.  However, no evidence exists that they can or will mix a martini for the object of their affection.
And they don’t just kiss any other squirrel, since their squirrel’s peripheral vision is as sharp as its focal eyesight, which means it can see what’s above and beside it without moving its head. They also have the benefit of natural sunglasses, pale yellow lenses that cut down on glare.  Cool.
Squirrels use their sharp, shaded vision to keep an eye on each other to aid in their hoarding behavior, which turns out to be remarkably calculated. Squirrels are opportunistic feeders eating cheeseburgers, crickets, gummy bears or a baby sparrow if need be, but they really like grain and seeds. They’ll gather acorns and other nuts, assess which are in danger of germinating and using up stored nutrients, remove the offending tree embryos with a few quick slices of their incisors, and then cache the sterilized treasure for later consumption, one seed per inch-deep hole.
But the squirrels don’t just bury an acorn and come back in winter. They bury the seed, dig it up shortly afterward, rebury it elsewhere, dig it up again. The researchers saw squirrels dig up and rebury acorns as many as five times,”. The squirrels recache to deter theft, lest another squirrel spied the burial the first X times.  This obsessive compulsive behavior is treated with drugs in humans, but is obviously tolerated in squirrel culture.
When squirrels are certain that they are being watched, they will actively seek to deceive the would-be thieves. They’ll dig a hole, pretend to push an acorn in, and then cover it over, all the while keeping the prized seed hidden in their mouth.  According to the researchers, this is how squirrels are like us...they are deceptive, cunning, and paranoid.  Explains a lot.

So squirrels scare us because they are like us?  Is believing that squirrels are evil sort of like the pot calling the kettle black?

Kitty tells me that because of this new research she is very much reformed in her view of squirrels.  She gone back to happily gardening her tomatoes without fear of reprisal from above (in the oak tree). In fact, instead of fearing and abhorring squirrels, she is now holding street crossing lessons for her furry new friends.  Her dog, however, is not happy.

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