I have trouble remembering where I store my keys! Have you ever wondered whether squirrels remember where they bury their food? We see squirrels with bulging cheeks frantically digging hiding places for their winter hoard of nuts. They seem to be scatterbrained as they dash to and fro, exhibiting nutty behavior that appears wildly disorganized. After they exert the effort to conceal their stash, how do they find the buried treasure on cold winter days — when they need food most? It turns out squirrels can teach us a thing or two about organization and security.
Squirrel storing research – yes, there are people dedicated to the subject – rejects the idea that squirrels are haphazardly chucking bits of food down holes in the ground simply hoping to stumble across them later. The research confirms that how squirrels handle and bury food is not random.
Animals that store food to survive the winter typically use one of two strategies: either they larder-hoard — meaning they store all their food in one place, or they scatter-hoard — meaning they split up their bounty and stash it in different locations. Squirrels are scatter-hoarders. That’s why we see them dashing between different locations to bury food. Their style of food storage reduces the risk of suffering one major loss. The more widely dispersed the food, the lower the possibility of a competitor discovering the squirrel's entire supply at one time.
There’s also a meticulous logic behind the way they divide up their food. They arrange and bury their stash according to specific traits, such as the type of nut. This helps them to mentally organize their hoard so they remember where it is — it’s similar to the way we dedicate one dresser drawer for socks, and another for underwear.
Researchers think squirrels even do quality control on their bounty. They paw over nuts and seeds for long periods of time, sorting them before they bury their stash — to select those with the highest nutritional content, and those least likely to decay underground.
Squirrels also practice subterfuge — pretending to bury nuts when other squirrels are watching — and then scurrying off to a secret location where they actually hide their edible treasures. They meticulously rearrange leaves over disturbed soil to hide their burial sites.
After they go to all this trouble, how do squirrels find their artfully concealed stash? Smell plays a role, but new research suggests that memory plays a more crucial role. Squirrels have spatial memory to help them map out the territory where they bury their food. Under certain conditions — like when their nuts are beneath snow — a sense of smell isn’t effective in helping them find food, so it makes sense that squirrels rely on other cues.
A study showed that even when multiple grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) bury their stash in close proximity to one another, individuals remember and return to the precise locations of their personal cache.
Other studies on squirrel behavior concur that memory underlies squirrels' nut-retrieving skills. Memory enables squirrels to recall the solution to difficult tasks more than two years after they first learn it — like manipulating levers to open a hatch that releases a prized hazelnut.
We’ve all watched grey, brown, and black squirrels find ingenious ways to conquer our supposedly squirrel–proof bird feeders. They’re determined problem solvers, and they never forget their creative solutions. It seems these furry creatures are way smarter than we thought.
Perhaps I’m the one with nutty behavior. Maybe I need to scatter hoard several sets of my keys, and instead of burying them in deep pockets, squirrel them away in purses next to food with a strong scent.
Sources: Jacobs.berkeley.edu, Vetmed.ucdavis.edu, HokkaidoUniversity.edu, Journal Animal Behavior and Cognition.