UC Berkeley researchers find ties between squirrel behavior and human psychology

Kelly Fang/Senior Staff

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A nut case may no longer be a pejorative term, thanks to a new study on UC Berkeley squirrels.

On the contrary, a study led by campus researchers under UC Berkeley psychology professor Lucia Jacobs has found that the way nuts are handled by squirrels is far more rational than previously believed.

“We’re finding that squirrels are not making random decisions,” said Mikel Delgado, a campus graduate student and one of the researchers in the study. “They’re thoughtful about their investments.”

Researchers in the study fed a variety of nuts to wild squirrels around the UC Berkeley campus and then analyzed patterns of where the food was buried and how squirrels retrieved it. By running similar experiments in which humans were asked to hide and remember certain items, the research group was able to infer cognitive similarities between the two species.

“We’re using humans to answer questions about squirrels,” Delgado said.

According to Lance Kriegsfeld, an associate professor of behavioral neuroscience at UC Berkeley who was not involved in the study, this approach is uncommon but not illogical.

“They’re determining how humans solve that kind of problem and determining if squirrels are capable of the same rational behavior,” Kriegsfeld said. “(If they’re asking,) ‘can animals perform human types of calculations,’ then that’s an effective method.”

Delgado said researchers chose to study squirrel behavior because, unlike other animals, squirrels take food as stimuli to store for later, even when they are not hungry. Squirrels also do not form many social bonds, allowing for competition between the individual animals. There is also the convenience that the campus is highly populated with them, she said.

“I can just walk outside my office and see them,” Delgado said.

The research is being funded by the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Fellowship and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which were awarded to Delgado.

The study of the furry creatures, whom the research group’s website describes as “cheeky and cute,” is not new to campus or the field of psychology. Various researchers at UC Berkeley have been studying the campus squirrels since the 1990s, according to Delgado.

Elsewhere, Michael Steele, a biology professor at Wilkes University, has done several similar studies of fox squirrel behavior, and Lisa Leaver, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Exeter, is currently involved in a study that observes the accuracy and duration of squirrels’ spatial memory.

Contact Lindsey Lohman at [email protected].