Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Squirrels use rattlesnake scent as camouflage and fake burying food

From Scientific American
California ground squirrels and rock squirrels from New Mexico have both shown the ability to chew up sloughed-off rattlesnake skin and smear it on their fur, thus masking their scent from one of their biggest predator threats.
In a recent paper, I suggested that a particularly human characteristic is the ability to reify experience as concepts. I can't argue that I know that no other creature has that ability, but I would guess that squirrels don't conceptualize what they are doing and don't "know" that they are rubbing rattlesnake scent on themselves—and especially don't know that they are doing so as camouflage.

Here's another example of squirrel intelligence.
To protect their winter food stocks from potential thieves, [grey squirrels] put on an elaborate show of burying non-existent nuts and seeds, a study has shown.

Scientists say the fake burials are designed to confuse any rival squirrels, birds or humans who might be watching.

The level of deception has astonished animal experts who say it shows a rare form of animal cunning and intelligence. …

The squirrels go to elaborate lengths to keep up the pretence of hiding food.

Once they have dug a small hole in a flower bed, woodland floor or lawn, they act as if they are thrusting a small object into the gap.

They complete the deception by covering the fake cache of food with a layer of soil or leaves.

The incidence of fake burials goes up when they think their food is under threat.

Dr Steele recruited a group of undergraduates to follow the squirrels and find out where they were burying food. The number of bogus interments shot up as soon as the human volunteers began to raid the food stocks - suggesting that the creatures were becoming even more deceptive as a reaction to the raids.

He believes that the bizarre behaviour suggests a far more advanced thought process for grey squirrels than scientist previously thought.

But experts are divided on whether the latest research means they are capable of reason or whether they simply get into routines which work for them.

Dr Lisa Leaver at the University of Exeter said: "They may just have learned through trial and error that certain behaviours protect their food from theft."
Do they know what they're doing?

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