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Squirrel Sorters

This scientist studied how squirrels store nuts to survive winter

Ryan Hoang/UC Berkeley

Mikel Delgado feeds a squirrel a nut for her experiment.

Shutterstock.com

Fox squirrels roam the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. They climb trees, hop across the grass, and bury nuts to eat later. Scientist Mikel Delgado knows this because she has spent the past few years keeping track of where the animals go!

Delgado studies how animals behave and process information. When she was a graduate student at the university, she wanted to know whether squirrels bury their nuts with any intention or pattern. In a series of experiments, Delgado and her team looked at how squirrels make decisions about where they store nuts. Her research uncovered complexities of squirrel behavior that no one had ever recorded before.

Fox squirrels roam the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. They climb trees, hop across the grass, and bury nuts to eat later. Scientist Mikel Delgado knows all about them. She has spent years keeping track of where the animals go!

Delgado studies how animals behave. She started studying squirrels as a graduate student at the university. She wanted to know whether squirrels bury their nuts in a particular pattern. So she and her team designed experiments to find out how squirrels decide where to store nuts. They discovered things about squirrel behavior that scientists hadn’t known before.

In the first experiment, the team labeled almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and walnuts. Then they gave each type of nut to 45 squirrels. They tracked each squirrel using a handheld GPS tracker. When a squirrel buried the nuts for a future snack, the scientists noted the location and timed how long the squirrels took to make a decision.

Back in the lab, the team mapped the results. They found that squirrels bury nuts in different places depending on type and size. Delgado thinks this might help the squirrels remember where the nuts are so they can find their snacks later.

“Like us, animals have to solve problems,” she says. And “those problems are really dependent on the environment that animal lives in.”

Squirrels must bury thousands of nuts each year to eat in winter and early spring, when food is scarce. They also need to remember where to recover their food and keep other animals from stealing it.

First the team labeled almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and walnuts. They gave each type of nut to 45 squirrels. They tracked each squirrel using a handheld GPS tracker. When a squirrel buried nuts, the scientists wrote down the location. They also timed how long it took the squirrels to choose a spot.

Back in the lab, the team mapped the results. They found that squirrels choose different burial spots depending on the type and size of nut. Delgado thinks this might help squirrels remember where the nuts are. “Like us, animals have to solve problems,” she says. “Those problems are really dependent on the environment that animal lives in.”

Squirrels must bury thousands of nuts each year. They eat them in winter and early spring, when less food is available. The squirrels need to remember where they stashed their food so they can eat it. They also have to keep other animals from stealing it.

Peter DaSilva/For the Los Angeles Times

A researcher uses a GPS device to locate where squirrels buried their nuts.

Delgado grew to love squirrels through her research. Her favorite was a mother squirrel that the researchers nicknamed Flame. Her bold personality made her a great subject for their experiment, Delgado says.

Urban wildlife is a window into the natural world, and Delgado encourages everyone to take notice. “Studying animal behavior can be challenging. You have to be patient. Animal subjects might not want to participate in your experiment. But my job is also fun and interesting. Animals around us do so many cool things that we don’t realize,” she says.

Delgado grew to love squirrels while she studied them. Her favorite was a mother squirrel nicknamed Flame. Flame’s bold personality made her a great squirrel to watch, says Delgado.

Delgado thinks everyone should pay attention to wildlife, even in cities. It’s a way of connecting with nature. “Studying animal behavior can be challenging. You have to be patient,” she says. “But my job is also fun and interesting. Animals around us do so many cool things that we don’t realize.”

In the first experiment, Delgado’s team measured the time it took the squirrels to bury the nuts and how far they traveled. Find the mean, median, and mode of the time and distance two squirrels traveled for each type of nut. Round to the nearest hundredth. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

In the first experiment, Delgado’s team measured the time it took the squirrels to bury the nuts and how far they traveled. Find the mean, median, and mode of the time and distance two squirrels traveled for each type of nut. Round to the nearest hundredth. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.





On average, which squirrel buried which type of nut the fastest?

On average, which squirrel buried which type of nut the fastest?

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