Squirrels can’t solve an equation or read a classic novel, but like most other Philadelphia animals they’re smart in
their own way. And that’s plenty smart enough to have kept the species alive and thriving for millennia as
climates and ecosystems continued to change. Animal intelligence usually involves problem-solving and memory
and Pennsylvania squirrels appear well capable of both.
Philadelphia squirrels learn by observing and experimentation and harnessing this squirrel wisdom, they develop strategies for husbanding food supplies and for self-protection.They remember the locations of food sources year-to-year and they have the ability to cachethousands of nuts,remembering the placement of their caches over extended periods of time.
Moreover, when it comes to caching, they employ both tactics and strategy – whether cognitively or instinctively. Either way it works. Squirrels have been observed practicing deception during the caching process, sometimes hiding nutson their bodies if other Pennsylvania squirrels –potential cache-robbers– are present. Once the rivals are gone they proceeded with the cache. Too, they’ll sometimes create fake repositories, going through the whole caching process, again hiding the object nut until the competitor departs andthen proceeding to cache the nut elsewhere in privacy. (They have no qualms about helping themselves if they run across another Philadelphia squirrel’s cache.)
Squirrels are well aware of the threat posed to their food supplies by other squirrels and they tend to move their caches repeatedly to make it more difficult for others to find their stores. The penchant for deception doesn’t apply only to protecting their pantries. California squirrels have been known to deceive predators by covering their fur with the rattlesnake scent to conceal their own. Besides being innately bright, squirrels have the ability to learn from other squirrels. They observe the others’ behavior and if it’s successful, to emulate it and if not, to forget it or try another approach. They are thinkers in their own way, conceptualizing three-dimensional maps of their cache locations and even finding and memorizing the best routes up trees to get to their nests.
In assessing any species’ learning and/or thinking abilities, there’s always a temptation to measure them in terms of similarity to our own mental processes. And that just doesn’t scan. Animals have evolved to solve problems that are relate to their needs and their natural or adopted environments. Over time and as a species, they become so good at it that it looks like intelligence. Maybe that’s what it is. Philadelphia squirrels, like other animals, are as smart as they need to be.
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