We're squirrel-crazy here. Living in New York, we see fat and happy little guys scampering around the parks, unafraid of tourists and enjoying life in the big city along with the rest of us. And we know we aren't alone in our appreciation. There's even a squirrel-themed superhero named Squirrel Girl, who has beaten all all of the major bad guys of the Marvel Universe.
Well, today is Squirrel Appreciation Day, so here are six fun facts about squirrels to sink your teeth into, courtesy of our friends at PBS:
1) Squirrels are actually very diligent about how they store away their foraged nuts.
Recent work from a research group led by Lucia Jacobs, a behavioral biologist and squirrel expert at the University of California, has shown that fox squirrels (Sciurus niger), arboreal squirrels native to the eastern half of North America, will cache anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 nuts each year. And the stockpiling isn’t done willy-nilly: The squirrels meticulously categorize their treats by source, variety, quality, and even preference as they bury them in various locales.
This makes sense, given that squirrels often live in environments where food can become scarce for winter.
2) It takes a lot of brain power to keep these food collections stored, which squirrels have in abundance.
There are a lot of people who've seen squirrels get into bird feeders and other places to get food. This is because squirrels are very clever. Researchers have tested squirrels' intelligence with various puzzles and games, giving them simple mechanisms that they could work to receive treats. They would then be separated from these mechanisms for years, but still be able to use them once they returned.
3) Squirrels are clever little creatures that are skilled at causing mischief
Studying squirrels can be tricky because they're notorious for messing with equipment and other materials. While their sense of mischief is well known (many cartoons featuring squirrel characters with a sense of play that's only slightly exaggerated from their real life counterparts) there is a reason for this trait. As foragers and scavengers, squirrels are in competition for diminishing resources, so they have to be clever about how they hide food. Researchers have found that squirrels will hide false caches in order to distract adversaries from their real stores.
“Up until the point where we found it in squirrels, this kind of tactical deception was thought to only occur in primates,” says Michael Steele, an evolutionary biologist and squirrel expert at Wilkes University. “To discover it in [what people consider] a lowly rodent was pretty exciting.”
4) Squirrels have a complicated language.
Even arboreal squirrels, which tend to be fairly solitary creatures, will still raise the alarmwhen threatened by a passing hawk or a particularly ornery dog. And many of these sounds have impossibly delightful, onomatopoeic names: The “kuk” is short, low, and repetitive—the standard scolding you’d get from a disgruntled squirrel that’s recently been driven up a tree. The “quaa” is higher and more protracted, while the third sound, the moan, is even shriller and more ululating.
And it seems squirrel body language is just as important. These rodents’ fluffiest appendages often offer the most tell-tail signs of danger. Two common tail movements are the twitch—which looks something like a shudder—and the flag, which engages the tail in a rhythmic whipping motion, almost like a revolving dough hook.
5) The agile movements of the tree-climbing squirrels are inspiring new technologies.
The ability to hop from tree to tree astonishes experts when compared to the squirrel's heavy bottomed body. But they're able to move like dancers through the air, hopping in the branches above. Scientists at UC Berkeley are studying their movements as they build robots that can be used as part of rescue operations to difficult-to-reach territories.
6) Squirrels are in every continent except Antarctica
These raucous rodents are native to every continent, with the notable exceptions of Antarctica and Australia (though due to the deliberate introduction of two species in the late 19th and early 20th century, the outback is technically no longer squirrel-free). But travel far back enough along the squirrel family tree, and you’ll find that squirrels appear to have originated in just one place: North America.
“They evolved here—they’re ours,” Jacobs, the UC Berkeley behavioral biologist, says. “Then they spread all over the world.”