Every one of us will one day share a home, building, attic, or backyard with San Fernando Valley squirrels, and we’ll quickly discover that the animals, with their supposedly puny brains, can quickly outwit us.
Squirrels are among the craftiest rodents around. They’ve learned to survive, deceive, and manipulate other animals and humans to get what they want. They lie, if they need to.
The animals have been watched and studied ever since they started co-habiting with humans, which has been going on for a long, long time. Any creature that is versatile enough to live in all sorts of climates and habitats is usually an intelligent one, of course, but squirrels have made an art of living anywhere humans are, as well as in their natural forests. Humans haven’t always made this easy.
But we do love watching them, and our observations over the decades reveal a rodent with an incredible memory and ability to plan.
Consider an older test, conducted at the UK’s University of Exeter. A California squirrel is shown two pots. A separate squirrel takes a nut from one of the pots. The deduction is simple, at first – that pot has nuts. The squirrel will then check the pot.
The poor San Fernando Valley rodent finds it empty. Naturally, it checks the other pot, and viola – one nut. The deduction is just slightly more complicated now – both pots have one nut.
Now the test is repeated. A California squirrel is shown two pots, a separate squirrel takes a nut from one of the pots, and voila – the first squirrel immediately goes for the other pot.
That may not sound like much, but in terms of animal memory, it’s excellent. The San Fernando Valley squirrel isn’t just remembering that nuts are present. He’s remembering the results of an earlier interaction, and using those results to guess at the new interaction in front of him. That’s not just memory; it’s imagination.
Squirrels, in fact, learn a great deal through observation of other creatures, even humans. Any city dweller can tell you that the rodents often wait until humans are crossing the street before they do so as well. They’ve learned that it’s safe so long as humans are present.
When it comes to sheer memory, though, nothing beats a San Fernando Valley squirrel burying a nut. The animals stockpile nuts for the winter, so they have to keep the location of their nut caches in mind for several months – no small feat for an animal with such a tiny brain.
But the really impressive feat? Pretending to bury a nut. California squirrels, if they feel they’re being watched by other squirrels, will pretend to bury a nut no less than five times, keeping it hidden within its cheek, until it’s certain it’s no longer being watched. It will remember the real location – obviously more difficult now that five additional fake sites have been added.
It takes a smart animal to remember. It takes an even smarter one to lie.
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