IMAGE:  February 2003 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
Volume 95, Issue 3
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The secret social lives of squirrels

They’re members of the U of C community that are rarely mentioned and often upstaged by their flashy, high-flying neighbor, the monk parakeet. Mostly seen as part of the scenery, they are resourceful, amusing, and when you’re holding a bagel, occasionally menacing. They’re lowly squirrels. But a November symposium elevated squirrels from campus clowns to research subjects. As part of the Animal Behavior Brownbag Series—weekly talks sponsored by the Laboratory of Comparative Development—Michael Pereira, SM’80, PhD’84, a research associate at the Lincoln Park Zoo, presented “The Secret Social Lives of Eastern Gray Squirrels, Sciureus carolinensis.”

PHOTO:  The lone squirrel:  pariah or pioneer?
Photo by Ryan Nagdeman
The lone squirrel: pariah or pioneer?

“I’m sure you’re all quite familiar with this animal because it’s all over the campus and will mug you if you’re not careful and take your lunches,” Pereira quipped to his audience of 15 students and faculty members. “But if you get 15 to 35 Americans in a room and ask them to tell you a detail about the behavior of gray squirrels, they can’t do it.”

Pereira, who has also studied lemurs and baboons, conducted research on the rarely studied squirrel while teaching at Bucknell University. In a three-year study he used squirrels chosen at random from around the Bucknell campus and enclosed in a large, outdoor, wooden-and-wire structure with nesting boxes. Applying primatology study techniques, he observed whether metabolic changes affect social behavior.

Kin relationships, Pereira’s study revealed, seem to influence squirrel behavior. Related squirrels are more willing to tolerate close proximity—two meters—than unrelated ones, remaining close an average of 12–13 minutes at a time. Conversely, unrelated individuals are more likely to antagonize one another. “Kin catch hell from each other too, but a lot more of the aggression gets directed toward nonkin.”

But then there’s poor little F5, a female born in the enclosure. Throughout the study F5 nested alone, even during an experiment in which holes were drilled in all but two nesting boxes, letting in the chilly air. The other squirrels co-nested for warmth, but F5 was excluded.

At this, psychology professor Martha McClintock pricked her ears, wondering at F5’s purpose within the group. Comparing squirrels to rats, her study animal, she asked if outcast squirrels like F5 are “pariahs—ostracized by their siblings? Or are they pioneer sentinels, bravely sitting at the outposts sacrificing themselves because they don’t mind being alone? What’s your sense of what F5 is?”

“If she wasn’t restricted in range she’d be long gone,” Pereira answered. F5, he explained, was a “low ranker” whose “singleton” nesting during the winter while the others co-nested was because “she was hammered by her siblings. Even her mother treated her poorly.”

“Then the question is,” McClintock continued, “does every group need a scapegoat? If someone were to take out F5…”

“…would someone else be the scapegoat?” Pereira finished.

That sent the group on a discussion of why a community needs a scapegoat: social coalition with the group—having a common punching bag—or as an easy way to show off. Unfortunately for F5, it seems she might have filled both needs.

With a colleague from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Pereira plans to continue his study of squirrels. Working near his Oak Park home, he will map where fox squirrels dominate and where gray squirrels dominate. “If anyone wants to collaborate,” Pereira told the audience hopefully, “I’m very interested.”

— Qiana Johnson



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