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Persistent Squirrels Learn Which Lever To Push Or Pull To Reach Trapped Food

Jan 22, 2016 12:41 PM EST
Grey Squirrel
Grey squirrels can quickly solve problems if they remain persistent.
(Photo : Flickr: Kev Chapman)

Practice makes perfect for grey squirrels on the hunt for food. In a recent study, researchers from the University of Exeter discovered persistent squirrels are able to quickly solve problems when food is on the other side, waiting for them.  

For their study, Exeter researchers used specially designed boxes containing visible, but out-of-reach hazelnuts to test how successful squirrels are at overcoming challenges. In order to acquire the food, squirrels had to figure out which lever to pull or push to make the nuts drop to the floor, according to a news release.

"The results of the study are quite remarkable and give us the clearest indication yet as to the roles of flexibility, and persistence, in the problem solving process," Pizza Ka Yee Chow, lead author of the study from the Centre for Research in Animal Behavior at the University of Exeter, explained in the release. "The squirrels learnt to solve the puzzle quite quickly, and increase efficiency over the course of the study to free the nut to eat."

As the squirrels set out to decipher this puzzle, researchers recorded persistence, flexibility - or the use of different tactics - and behavioral selectivity, which is measured as the proportion of effective behaviors, in relation to problem-solving efficiency on a trial-by-trial basis.

While persistence and behavioral selectivity appeared to be directly associated with problem-solving efficiency, flexibility did not help the squirrels learn which lever to push or pull to get the food. Instead, it increased time spent solving the problem.

"Importantly, what we also showed is that flexibility, measured as the rate at which the squirrels changed behavioral tactics, may not always be advantageous for the animals," Chow added.

Therefore, researchers suggest flexibility is an independent cognitive process or behavioral trait. 

"By identifying the mechanisms involved in solving problems, we hope to better understand why there is so much variation between individuals and between species in these abilities," co-author Dr. Lisa Leaver concluded in the university's release.

Their study was recently published in the journal Animal Behaviour

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