Squirrels Have Unique Personalities, New Study Says

We may associate squirrels with acorns, storing away food for the winter, or being a little too ‘nuts’ near the road. A new study says there’s more to these furry critters than meets the eye, though. They also have some personality.

Researchers from University of California, Davis, placed golden-mantled ground squirrels in different environments to see how they responded. The goal was to better understand their personalities. They found that some of the animals were noticeably bolder and more social. Their results were published in ScienceDirect.

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Lead author Jaclyn Aliperti, who was earning her Ph. D. in ecology at UC Davis during the study, says, “This adds to the small but growing number of studies showing that individuals matter. Accounting for personality in wildlife management may be especially important when predicting wildlife responses to new conditions, such as changes or destruction of habitat due to human activity.”

To better understand their personalities, Aliperti drew from research already done by the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado. Aliperti’s advisor, UC Davis professor Dirk Van Vuren, established a golden-mantled ground squirrel study site there more than 30 years ago.

Aliperti also performed her own experiments, spread across three summers in Colorado. Those included placing the squirrels in an enclosed box with gridded lines and holes, placing them in front of their mirror image, slowly approaching them outside to see how long it took them to run away, and catching them in simple traps to see how they behaved afterward.

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Through these experiments, they saw marked differences in four personality areas: boldness, aggressiveness, activity level, and sociability. Some of the key takeaways were that bolder squirrels had larger core areas that shyer ones, bold and active squirrels moved faster, and access to resources was greater in those that were more proactive and social. The researchers note that this shows squirrels’ personalities play a big role in their use of space and resources. Additionally, more social squirrels seem to have a better chance of survival.

Learning how unique these animals can be wasn’t all that surprising to Aliperti.

She says, “I view them more as individuals. I view them as, ‘Who are you? Where are you going? What are up to?’ versus on a species level.

“Animal personality is a hard science, but if it makes you relate to animals more, maybe people will be more interested in conserving them.”

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The researchers hope their findings will lead to further research linking personality with species distribution, which they feel could help create better wildlife management practices.

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