Are Squirrels Smart? Everything We Know About Their Intelligence
Easily recognized by their slender bodies and fluffy tails, squirrels are often polarizing creatures. In some countries, they are considered an invasive species, but there are people who enjoy having the small, clever animals scurrying in their backyards.
Anyone who has tried to keep a squirrel out of a bird feeder can testify to the animal’s intelligence, but what does the research say? Keep reading to discover everything we know about squirrel intelligence.
What is a Squirrel?
Squirrels are rodents with the scientific name Sciuridae and can be found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. There are over 200 species of squirrels, generally categorized as tree squirrels, ground squirrels, or flying squirrels.
Typically found in wooded areas, squirrels prefer to make nests either in trees or in the ground. Their diet consists primarily of nuts, seeds, fruit, and fungi. Depending on the species, squirrels can have fur that is grey, brown, red, yellow, black, or white.
Are Squirrels Smart?
Researchers studied populations of grey squirrels in England and the United States to determine if squirrels possess innate intelligence, or if their problem-solving abilities are due to evolving to new habitats. The research team identified groups of squirrels in four locations across two continents and measured their results on three different tests.
The research team tested squirrels for their memories, innovation, and spatial learning. The team set up a variety of plastic containers and levers that rewarded the squirrels with hazelnut kernels. All four groups of squirrels had similar results, leading researchers to the conclusion that squirrels have a level of innate intelligence, regardless of their environment.
Squirrels Have Complex Personalities
At the University of California, Davis, researchers studied golden-mantled ground squirrels to better understand their personalities. The researchers found that squirrels’ personalities exhibit four main traits: aggressiveness, activity level, sociability, and boldness.
Researchers drew from decades’ worth of data from the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado. In addition, researchers observed squirrels in four tests in order to measure their responses in different situations.
While golden-mantled ground squirrels are asocial, individual squirrels can have varying levels of sociability. More sociable squirrels tended to have better spots to perch, giving them more visibility to see approaching predators.
Squirrels Are Highly Organized
At the University of California, Berkeley, researchers tackled the question of how fox squirrels keep their stash of nuts organized. Individual squirrels can bury as many as 10,000 nuts each year, storing each type of nut in a different location.
The research team tracked 45 squirrels, giving each one different types of nuts in varying orders. Researchers found that the squirrels used a method called “chunking” to remember where each type of nut was stored. Humans use chunking when we remember telephone numbers in sections: first, the three-digit area code, followed by three more digits, then four digits.
Squirrels utilized a similar approach to bury different types of nuts together. The researchers determined that the squirrels were able to evaluate nuts for size and weight and return to various hiding spots to place the same type of nuts together.
Squirrels Are Quick Learners
Researchers at the University of Exeter studied five squirrels to assess their intelligence using a rectangle-shaped device with 12 indentations. The four corner indentations were hollow and were covered by a thin piece of paper. Two of the paper-covered wells were empty, while two contained hazelnuts.
Researchers placed the hazelnuts in opposite corners of the device. They observed that the squirrels adapted quickly in order to find the nuts. Before long, if a squirrel found a nut, it went to the opposite corner rather than checking the corners in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. The research team reported that the squirrels made fewer errors with more tests, indicating the animals have a flexible learning style.
Squirrels Can Learn Through Observation
In 2009, researchers at the University of Exeter devised a test to determine if grey squirrels have the ability to learn from observing other grey squirrels. For this test, researchers set up two pots of food. First, they had squirrels observe another squirrel as it picked a nut from one of the pots.
From there, some squirrels were rewarded for choosing a nut from the same pot, while other squirrels were rewarded for choosing a nut from the other pot. The squirrels that were rewarded for choosing the other pot learned more quickly how to get their reward, indicating an ability to adapt to the absence of food.
Researchers repeated the test, using a card instead of having the test squirrels observe another squirrel. The results of the card test showed that both squirrel groups learned at about the same rate whether to choose the same pot or the other pot in order to get their reward. Researchers determined that squirrels can learn by observing other squirrels, especially about the gathering and storing of nuts.