Nutty, professor? Why Squirrel Ramaphosa is anything but
Study shows better problem-solving skills among invasive Eastern grey squirrels compared to the native Eurasian red squirrels
A rodent quickly dubbed “Squirrel Ramaphosa” achieved its 15 minutes of fame when it appeared on the red carpet before Friday’s state of the nation address in Cape Town.
The squirrel, one of scores that are a tourist attraction in Government Avenue alongside parliament, darted around the feet of dignitaries and even perched on a bust of Nelson Mandela.
Just a stupid creature? Anything but, according to new research in the UK.
Researchers from the universities of Exeter and Edinburgh gave grey squirrels and native red squirrels tasks, and found that more greys cracked the difficult problem.
They said their “superior behavioural flexibility may have facilitated their invasion success”.
Grey squirrels, which are native to the US, were introduced to the Groote Schuur estate in Cape Town by Cecil John Rhodes around the turn of the 20th century.
In oak-lined Government Avenue they survive mainly on acorns, as well as titbits from tourists.
In the UK experiment, they were tempted with hazelnuts to open a transparent lid (the easy task) and to push and pull levers (the hard one).Pizza Ka Yee Chow, of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour, said the discovery that grey squirrels were better than their red counterparts at problem-solving could help to explain their success when introduced into alien environments.
“This might be especially important for an invasive species like grey squirrels, as they have evolved elsewhere and have to adapt to their surroundings,” she said.
About 91% of grey squirrels eventually solved the difficult task, compared to 62% of red squirrels. The study says “inefficient” foraging and food extraction are likely to mean poorer fitness among red squirrels, harming their chances of reproduction.
“It is not yet clear whether grey squirrels are born better problem solvers, or whether they work harder because they’re an invasive species living outside their natural environment,” said Chow.
Her colleague, Stephen Lea, added: “These results illustrate how investigating animals’ differing cognitive abilities can help us understand important issues in conservation.”
The paper, published in the journal Animal Behaviour, is entitled: “A battle of wits? Problem-solving abilities in invasive Eastern grey squirrels and native Eurasian red squirrels.”