Les écureuils

I’ve gone all French in the title because if you can pronounce their word for “squirrel,” you’re on your way to speaking the tongue. (Close behind is the locksmith’s: “serrurerie”.)  Anyway, gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are probably the wild mammals that you encounter most often.  In today’s New York Times, Natalie Angier brings us up to date on the latest in gray squirrel research. Read her piece and you’ll look at these rodents with a new respect.

Here’s a tidbit:

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. “We’ve seen seeds that were recached as many as five times,” said Dr. Steele. The squirrels recache to deter theft, lest another squirrel spied the burial the first X times. Reporting in the journal Animal Behaviour, the Steele team showed that 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. “Deceptive caching involves some pretty serious decision making,” Dr. Steele said. “It meets the criteria of tactical deception, which previously was thought to only occur in primates.”

Fig. 1.  Yes, yes, I know that this isn’t a gray squirrel.

38 thoughts on “Les écureuils

  1. In Northeast Ohio, the red squirrels dominate the squirrel niche. They’re MUCH larger and more muscular than the skinny grays. In fact, I had never seen a gray squirrel until after I left that part of the country to go to college. I thought the grays were sickly.

    I suspect, but cannot prove, that the reason reds are scarce elsewhere is because they’re SO much more meatier than the grays that they would be preferred by the invasive predatory species (that would be us). Thereby again proving that if it’s delicious, it’ll be endangered shortly.

    Now, I live near Brevard, NC, where the white squirrel (albinistic) population is quite robust, and the White Squirrel Festival is held every year to give the humans a chance to eat fried dough and act like nuts.

    1. That’s interesting, because here in NW NJ, red squirrels are much smaller than grays, and heavily outnumbered.

    2. “Anyway, gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are probably the wild mammals that you encounter most often”. The wild (non-human) mammals I encounter most often are rats (preferably dead, in traps) and rabbits. I don’t think there are any squirrels in this hemisphere.

      1. Spot on, mate. In fact, on this continent, the only mammals one encounters are imported refugees.

        The wild animal I most encounter is the possum. Which is sort of almost a mammal, I guess.

  2. I once saw a battle of wits between a gray squirrel, which opredominate where I live (Ontario) and a crow. The squirrel had found half a bagel but noticed a crow watching and so seemed reluctant to store his find. But I saw the crow move carefully behind a leafy branch, invisible to the squirrel, who, after a bit, buried the bagel and left. The crow swooped down, dug it up and caried it off.

  3. Oddly enough, just as “serrurerie” is the key word that reveals anglophone’s origins, no matter how good our accent, its translation – “locksmith’s” – performs the same function on a francophone (try it on a frog of your acquaintance). What’re the odds against *that* Mr Evolution Man? Seems to me God made it that way. Disprove my hypothesis!

    1. Actually – “Squirrel” works too. I did a French exchange program in my youth and the Francophones could not pronounce ‘squirrel’.

      1. Ha! When a French person makes fun of your pronounciation of French, ask them to say “owl.” They can’t do it, and it’s hilarious to watch their facial contortions as they try!

        1. To be fair, the francophones I have known – from Quebec – thought my accent was charming.

  4. My main problem with the article is the line: “Deceptive caching involves some pretty serious decision making,” Dr. Steele said. “It meets the criteria of tactical deception, which previously was thought to only occur in primates.”

    That simply isn’t true. Ravens have long been known to have remarkably complex food caching memory and behaviour (they learn which individuals are more prone to thievery, etc.). Likewise, dogs try tactical deception all the time (usually to the point of being comically obvious) – have you ever had a dog studiously not look at the thing they are most interested in (but are not supposed to be)?

    1. You beat me to it, my first thought was;

      “Wait a minute, hasn’t this been demonstrated in corvids multiple times?”

  5. The German for “squirrel” is also a tongue- (or perhaps soft-palate-) twister: Eichhörnchen.

    1. Sw “ekorre” – ‘oak grouse’ [sic!], so we got the “eichel” (oak nut, I believe) in common with german.

      Curious. Is “hörnchen” from “henne” (hen, sw “höna”)?

      1. I believe “hörnchen” means “little horn” and refers to the tips of the squirrel-ears. (That is at least what I was taught in school)

        1. Thank you!

          And may I say, that is so cute. Besides the tail, it is the most endearing feature of the nutty thing.

          [The reason I asked is that we have a lot of German related stuff in swedish, not least because we share the same language roots in relatively near time, but also since the successful “Hansa” trade (Hanseatic League) years. So once in a while you notice something familiar.]

          1. You’re welcome! I’m at work now, so I can’t check my old teacher’s teachings about the cute, little Eichhörnchen, but I have studied German at the university (a bit) and have Swedish family, so I do know both languages quite well. IF I find proof against my theory late today, I’ll of course post it here.

  6. I’m concerned about the “serious decision making” here. I don’t know if that phrase is qualified at all in other parts of the piece, but right here it seems sloppy. All we know is that the squirrels behave as if they were trying to deceive other animals that might like to get at their cache; we definitely don’t know (from the the information in the paragraph) that they are acting on a clear cognition that unseen others might want to take their food, and can be misdirected by false indications. There is always a danger that we will read ourselves and our own ways of thinking/behaving into nature, especially while observing our fellow organisms, and we should be careful to guard against this.

    Of course, maybe squirrels are just that smart, and that’s exactly what’s happening. Looking back at worried secularist’s anecdote, I wonder why a squirrel would consciously decide to cleverly guard its cache against unseen others, but forget the crow around the corner and bury a tasty bagel in an already-compromised location.

        1. While I agree with you about the danger of assigning humanized motivations and knowledge to animals without careful discrimination, it is equally easy to trivialize nonhuman animal motivations and knowledge by supposing that humans are completely different. Thus, putting humans on an unconfirmed pedestal. A lot of christians hold an irrational notion that they aren’t animals (there is no evidence that squirrels hold such irrational notions, therefore, (using basic christian as method) we can conclude that squirrels have the edge over christians).

          The article includes this statement:
          when squirrels are certain that they are being watched, they will actively seek to deceive the would-be thieves

          That suggests to me that the researchers noted a change in behavior that they explain using a somewhat humanized description, however, the change of behavior is still notable, even without the humanization. Here’s a portion of your response:

          we definitely don’t know (from the the information in the paragraph) that they are acting on a clear cognition that unseen others might want to take their food

          You specify “unseen others” without regard to the researchers reported observation of behavioral change based on what they describe as ‘know others’.

          In your last paragraph (squirrel and crow) you also dismiss some of the reported information. Would you argue that the crow isn’t aware of attempting to concealing itself? Do you expect the squirrel to know that the crow is concealed as opposed to isn’t currently watching? Humans surely can make the same mistake (possibly even if they aren’t christians.)

  7. Squirrels have theory of mind, maybe, or maybe just look as if they do.

    So why doesn’t Dr Steele know about corvids? Was that just an abbreviation for interview purposes? Not a good idea if so – if you’re going to include the word “only” then you should get it right.

    1. I am quite familiar with corvid behavior and detail it well in the AB article cited in the NYT’s article. In fact, I spent the past four years working on food hoarding in blue jays. Indeed, you are correct that corvids engage in similar behavior and if anything are more clever that squirrels. Although I don’t recall the precise context of the quote you reference, I can tell you that my use of the words “previous” and “only” refer to the original work on tactical behavior in primates—prior to that on corvids, squirrels, and carnivores of the past decade.

      1. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand your last comment. When you said, “It meets the criteria of tactical deception, which previously was thought to only occur in primates,” you are telling us you meant “was thought to occur only in primates BEFORE more recent work that shows it occurs in carnivores and corvids”?? That’s not what the quote sounds like at all. It clearly implies that the squirrel behavior was, at the time your paper was published, known only in primates.

        Did the NYT reporter somehow misconstrue what you meant?

        1. As the AB article describes, there is really little work specifically on deception since the original research on primates. Yes, the corvid work clearly shows social awareness, a strong ability for pilferage averting behavior, and an awareness of mind. However, research focused on deception is largely limited to observations on a two hand-reared ravens.

  8. In England the gray squirrel has made our native red squirrel endangered. If my moms attempts at keeping squirrels of her bird feeders they are good at solving problems. Never seen them being devious though. Seen plenty of crows and magpies hiding and moving things from under the moss on the garage roof. Incidentally I found cayenne pepper powder and crushed chilli mixed in the bird food deters squirrels. Birds can’t taste the substance that makes chilli and peppers hot, squirrels can. Something about chilli and peppers not surviving the longer digestion process of mammals and things, but could survive a birds shorter digestion system.

  9. strangebeastie beat me to it. Behaviour tells you little or nothing about state of mind. You could program a robot ecreuil to go to a likely place to hide a nut and dig there. A nut there? Y/N? N? Go to start.
    Y Pick up the nut, go to a likely place to hide one and hide it. Go to start. A prey species is very alert to others around. You could have the robot interrupt its routine when it detected movement around it.
    They don’t even need any kind of memory. They can just spend all their time going from likely place to likely place compulsively moving nuts around and eating them occasionally to keep fuelled.
    Remember when we thought that beavers were intelligent because they built dams? It turns out that they only need to hear the sound of running water to try to stick something into it. Then they keep doing that until the stimulus ceases. The result? One dammed stream after another.

  10. Anyway, gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are probably the wild mammals that you encounter most often.

    Only seem them (Grays) in Edinburgh and that was 10 years ago. Never seen them in Australie. Cute little buggers. There were plenty of red ones in Hyde park London jumping up on fences to get a tidbit off you when you were walking along. Squirrels do a good impression of weird rats. Which is probably not a surprise as they’re both rodents I believe.

  11. In Minnesota, gray squirrels are bigger than the red. What’s interesting is that in the past year, I’ve seen slightly smaller gray squirrels with red tails! Do they interbreed?

  12. There are only red squirrels in Denmark. So the red fellows is probably the living wild mammal I encounter most. I said living, because hedgehog roadkills are sadly numerous.

  13. I’ve heard from Nicky Clayton, a famous researcher on covid intelligence, and she’s given me permission to post her take on the squirrel/corvid business:

    It’s an interesting piece and the first evidence that squirrels are sensitive to being watched by another individual. Previous work suggested that squirrels were sensitive to pilferage but not to whether or not another squirrel was present.

    The corvids are also sensitive to whether or not another jay is watching them. In fact the first paper Nathan and I wrote together was about how jays re-cache items on new hiding places once the onlookers have left, something they don’t do when caching in private or in front of their mates.

    In that Nature paper we also showed that only experienced thieves do so, ie it takes a thief to know one and argued that this is a form of ToM [Theory of Mind}. Experience-Projection. We subsequently also showed that they remember which particular individual was watching and keep track of who was watching when they cached in particular places (Dally et al 2006, in Science) and that they know when to conceal auditory info, namely when another can hear but cannot see (Stulp et al 2009, in Biol Lett).

    I’d be amazed if the squirrels showed such sensitivity, and it would be great if the Steele et al group, and others, tested squirrels on such tasks.

    1. I don’t disagree that there is evidence for theory of mind for the corvids and not the squirrels. Our work on deceptive behavior requires additional study before we can suggest that this is the case in squirrels. The AB article makes this point clear.

      1. I’m sorry, but you’re evading the question. You either stand by your quote to the NYT or you don’t—or you claim that you were quoted inaccurately. Saying that the matter is laid out in the paper is not an answer.

  14. Sorry to be picky BUT, we don’t have ‘gray’ squirrels in the UK!

    They are ‘grey’!

  15. Je ne suis pas sur de bien saisir ce qu’il y a de difficile avec la prononciation de, soit écureuil, soit serrurerie…héhé!

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