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Squirrels Remember How To Solve Problems For Up To 2 Years

14 July 2017, 10:01 pm EDT By Luan Chan Tech Times
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Squirrels exhibit effective problem solving behavior when facing obstacles similar to challenges they have already solved. A study suggests that they remember and learn from past mistakes.  ( Jim Ewoldsen | Pixabay )

Researchers from the University of Exeter who have been studying squirrel behavior for the past few years reveal that the rodents are not only quick with their movements but are efficient in solving obstacles, as well.

According to a recently published study titled "How to stay perfect: The role of memory and behavioral traits in an experienced problem and a similar problem," squirrels can quickly remember and apply an effective solution to a problem they have not encountered for at least 22 months.

Testing Squirrel Memory

The study involved testing the problem solving techniques of five gray squirrels that were given a problem solving task with hazelnut rewards two years prior. The task involved pressing the correct levers to retrieve hazelnuts.

Simon, Arnold, Sarah, Leonard, and Suzy — the University of Exeter's five smart squirrels — were quick to exhibit memory retention, mental flexibility and intelligence back then. According to the researchers, all five squirrels' first attempt at cracking the problem took an average of eight seconds, which scaled down to two seconds on their final attempt.

All five have been involved in other behavioral and problem solving studies since then and have not been given tests similar to the original problem.

In order to test whether the squirrels would recall the tactics they used years prior, the researchers presented a similar but differently packaged task to the same five squirrels and found that they were able to adjust to the new situation and apply the most efficient strategy.

This time, the squirrels solved the problem at an average of three seconds on the first attempt and two seconds on the final try.

"This is not just remembering where things have been left, it shows they can recall techniques which they have not used for a long time," study co-author Professor Stephen Lea expressed.

Loading Problem Solving Tactics

That is not to say that the researchers went easy on the scurry for the recall test. The team actually redesigned the test enough to make the squirrels stop in their tracks to determine what they're up against.

According to the research team, the squirrels actually hesitated for at least 20 seconds in a seeming display of neophobia — a fear of new or unfamiliar things — before even attempting to tackle the problem.

Once they figured out that what they're facing is just a previously solved problem in a different package, the squirrels were quick to employ tactics similar to what they used two years prior, adjusting when necessary to improve efficiency.

The researchers believe that this quality is what allows squirrels to survive even in unfamiliar environments and outsmart humans no matter what new type of bird feeder they put up against the rodents.

"People may try different types of bird feeders to keep the squirrels away, but this research shows grey squirrels can not only remember tricks for getting food but can apply those skills in new situations," study lead author Dr. Pizza Ka Yee Chow said.

The study was published in the journal Animal Cognition.

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