Squirrel Acrobats Are As Intelligent As Athletic

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Olympic gymnasts wow the world with their performance on uneven bars. Fortunately, they don’t have to compete with squirrels.

Suppose that instead of ragged sticks, human gymnasts had to fly through the canopy of trees, leaping through gaps at various distances, branches of varying thickness, some rigid, some springy. And each landing would be different on everything from trunk to branches.

Oh, and then there are the hawks to watch out for.

What makes squirrels so good?

Cognitive scientists and biomechanics experts at the University of California at Berkeley set out to test both the agility and decision-making ability of wild fox squirrels in a eucalyptus grove at the edge of campus. They are a different species from the common Eastern gray squirrels, but both are experts at navigating treetops.

Not only did the researchers record the squirrels’ jumps and landings, they were also able to analyze the decisions the animals made about how and where to jump. In one part of the experiment, the animals invented parkour-like movements mid-jump to jump up a vertical wall and adjust their speed and distance, which confused the original purpose of the test.

Lucia F. Jacobs, a cognitive psychologist who has extensively studied squirrels, A report on the study in the journal Science“As a squirrel biologist, in some ways, none of this is very surprising. If we were going to have the Squirrel Olympics, it wouldn’t even be an elimination match.”

But it was unusual for cognitive and biomechanical minds to meet for joint research.

The paper’s lead author, Nathaniel H. Hunt, started the project when he was a graduate student, and he shared the real squirrel events with Dr. Jacobs’ lab with Judy Jinn, a student and a co-author.

Currently at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Dr. Many previous biomechanics studies have focused entirely on animal structure and movement, but this group wanted to understand decision-making, learning and creativity in the context of physical challenges, Hunt said.

He said the squirrels are a good choice because, in addition to their athleticism, “they also have a great ability to make decisions, solve puzzles and learn.”

Biomechanics and another author, Dr. Robert J. Full said the first question is how the squirrel weighs the variables of distance and the flexibility of a branch when establishing a jump. Going to the end of a branch where one branch is very curly can give a very short jump to the next branch. But curvy branches don’t provide a solid jumping platform, so you can’t count on using your muscles efficiently.

The squirrels (all wild, free to come and go) are trained to jump from perches to get the peanut prize. The team made different perches, or artificial branches, that look the same from the outside but have different flexibility along the length of the branch and between branches.

The researchers discovered that the stiffness of the throwing branch is what squirrels consider most important. Dr. “They care about a fixed takeoff position about six times more than how far they’ll jump,” Full said.

The squirrels also quickly learned that a stiff branch is replaced by a similar springy branch. And they never fell during the trials, largely because they did acrobatic descents: swinging from the bottom, swinging to the side, hanging from their forearms. All the maneuvers familiar to anyone trying to set up squirrel-proof bird feeders.

The researchers also modified the length of jumps and the height of throws to see if practice and learning would improve the overall competence of some squirrels. But squirrels have changed the way they jump. Dr. “They decide to park down the wall and land on the perch,” Full said. They increased or decreased their speed by adjusting their jump at a midpoint.

Dr. The experiment’s subjects were absolutely unaffected by the new challenge, Full said. “They look at us like, ‘We’re squirrels…'”

David Hu, who studies animal movements at Georgia Tech, said he found the creativity of parkour movement interesting. “There should be more work like this – looking at animal creativity as we tackle tasks that would be impossible without innovation.”

He also liked the way squirrels deal with mistakes. They are not perfect at all and often overshoot or hit their targets. But they still have stroke abilities.

“Squirrels are used to making mistakes (after all, jumps are snap decisions),” he said in an email, “but they’re successful because they’re experts at correcting themselves on landing.”

Dr. “I think there is a moral for all of us,” Hu added. “Don’t worry too much about a wrong jump, as long as you can recover like a squirrel, you’ll be fine.”

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