July 6, 2015

Study shows grey squirrels are quick learners

(July 6, 2015)  They may be viewed by some as an invasive species or a commonplace pest of public parks, but a new study from the University of Exeter has shown that grey squirrels are actually quick learners capable of adapting tactics to improve efficiency and reap the best rewards.

To test the animals’ intelligence and mental flexibility researchers invented a task involving a box with 12 sunken wells, four of which were hollow. Of the four, two contained hidden hazelnuts.

The five squirrels observed in the study (named Simon, Arnold, Sarah, Leonard and Suzy) were all given training prior to the task so they were proficient at using their paws or teeth to peel back the layer of paper hiding a nut inside the wells.

The hazelnuts were placed in the wells diagonally across from each other, meaning that the least efficient way for the squirrels to locate the food was to check each well in a clockwise or counter-clockwise sequence, and the most effective was an ‘integrative’ approach where squirrels checked only the two diagonal wells that contained food, ignoring the two empty wells.

In the study, published today in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, all of the squirrels showed clear improvement over successive attempts with the box, becoming more efficient in adjusting their behaviour to adapt to the task.