Social Skills Give Social Squirrels an Advantage

Humans acknowledge that personality goes a long way, at least for our species. But scientists have been more hesitant to ascribe personality to other animals. A study has now documented personality in golden-mantled ground squirrels, which are common across the western U.S. and Canada.

– UC Davis

Humans agree that character counts for a lot, at least in our case. It’s only recently that scientists have begun to question whether or not other animals have personalities.  Golden-mantled ground squirrels, which may be found across the western United States and portions of Canada, have personalities for the first time, according to researchers at the University of California, Davis. Study published in Animal Behaviour showed that squirrels exhibit personality for four key traits: boldness, aggression, activity level and sociability, according to the research..

The golden-mantled ground squirrel is not endangered, but the results indicate that wildlife conservationists should know how an animal’s personality affects how much space it uses.  The concept of “individuals matter” is used.  The idea that ground squirrels have personalities may not come as a surprise after seeing them chatter and skitter, pause and then scamper. However, the scientific subject of animal personality is still in its infancy, as is the understanding that animal personality has ecological ramifications. Squirrels who are braver or more aggressive may be able to defend a bigger area or locate more food, but their hazardous activity puts them at danger of being eaten or being injured.  Individuals matter, says main researcher Jaclyn Aliperti, who performed the research while getting her Ph.D. in ecology at the University of California, Davis. When anticipating animal reactions to changing circumstances like habitat changes or damage caused by human activities, accounting for personality in wildlife management may be particularly essential.

For many years, researchers at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado, have studied golden-mantled ground squirrels. Dirk Van Vuren, a professor at the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, first established it as a long-term research site more than 30 years ago.  With the help of this large pool of information, Aliperti was able to conduct her research, which included many summer-long studies in which she observed and measured the squirrels’ personalities.  According to her, there are standardized methods to measuring animal personalities, but no Meyers-Briggs tests for animals. It was her job to keep track of the squirrels’ answers to four different kinds of exams.

Squirrels were housed in a box with gridded lines and holes to provide them a unique experience.  Squirrels are shown a mirror picture of themselves, which they mistake for someone else.   To test how long a squirrel would wait before fleeing, researchers carefully approached the rodents in the wild.  Squirrel behavior was briefly studied when they were trapped in a simple trap uninjured. Bolder squirrels had bigger core regions, according to the results of the research. Those squirrels that were brave and assertive moved more quickly. The more aggressive, brave, and energetic the squirrels were, the more perches they could find, such as rocks. Access to perches is critical because it gives birds a greater view point from which to see and avoid predators. Access to the perch, it turns out, was also linked to sociability.

Squirrels of the golden-mantled kind are regarded as solitary in nature. There is limited chance for social connections to develop, since bigger ground squirrels spend more time with their family units and spend more time together as they mature. Even yet, the research found that “individuals who tend to be somewhat more sociable seem to have an advantage within this asocial species.”  A person’s life may be saved by being more sociable in such situations. A squirrel’s capacity to live and reproduce may be influenced by personality variations, and these effects might have an impact on the population or society as a whole.  Many squirrels call UC Davis home, and they’ve earned the title of “honorary mascot.”  Ac cording to Aliperti, the squirrels at UC Davis are “out of this world”.  She really really mean it. It is a distinct species of squirrel from the ground squirrels that Aliperti examined. However, she claims that the work she’s done has altered her perspective on Davis’s squirrel population.

Aliperti described his attitude toward the group as “more personalized” than collective. “The way I see it, it’s like, ‘Who are you?” What are your plans for the rest of the day? The question is asked at the individual level vs. the species level.”  Observing such uniqueness in animals allows for a more intimate experience with it. People may be more engaged in conservation if they feel more connected to animals according to Aliperti’s research. Coauthors of the research include UC Davis’ Brittany Davis, Nann Fangue, and Anne Todgham, in addition to Aliperti and Van Vuren. The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory Graduate Fellowship, the Dr. Lee R. G. Snyder Memorial Fellowship, the American Society of Mammalogists Grant-in-Aid of Research and the UC Davis Walter and Elizabeth Howard Award and Ecology Student Endowment Award all contributed to the study’s success.

Journal Reference: Jaclyn R. Aliperti, Brittany E. Davis, Nann A. Fangue, Anne E. Todgham, Dirk H. Van Vuren. Bridging animal personality with space use and resource use in a free-ranging population of an asocial ground squirrelAnimal Behaviour, 2021; DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2021.07.019

Categories: Clinical