Dr. Sylvia Halkin studies the crafty and cunning ways squirrels try to outwit their peers. Dr. Halkin, a professor of biology at CCSU, has found that squirrels use a number of tricks to confuse the competition in their lifelong pursuit of nut hoarding.
Dr. Halkin became interested in squirrels after one of her students made an intriguing observation. “She reported that after squirrels buried nuts, they sometimes walked away and covered up another spot nearby. It sounded like they might be misdirecting their competition about where they’d buried food. Deception is pretty rare in animals. It was exciting that we found a possible example,” said Dr. Halkin.
To study this behavior further, Dr. Halkin and her students stole nuts buried by squirrels on CCSU’s campus. Interestingly, squirrels adapted to defeat their new nemeses—biology students. “Squirrels were more likely to eat nuts after they watched us dig up nuts they had buried: a nut that has been eaten can’t be stolen. They also were more likely to stash nuts in places that humans couldn’t get to, like up in trees or underneath something we couldn’t reach under,” said Dr. Halkin.
Like humans, squirrels may have their own unique regional eccentricities. Dr. Halkin teamed up with Dr. Michael Steele of Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, PA. He has been studying the deceptive behaviors of Pennsylvania squirrels. The specimens Dr. Steele observed were “more likely to go through a whole burying sequence, but walk away with the nut still in their mouth and then bury it somewhere else. [CCSU] squirrels were more likely to cover up an extra place after actually burying a nut,” said Dr. Halkin.
Not only are squirrels interesting from a biological perspective, they are also a great subject for student research. “Squirrels are right on campus, they’re cooperative and attractive to students,” explained Dr. Halkin. Since 1995, fifty-six CCSU students have participated in squirrel research. They’ve done everything from designing experiments to presenting data at academic conferences. Two have become co-authors (along with Dr. Steele and Dr. Halkin) of an article on squirrels in Animal Behaviour, the major peer-reviewed scientific journal on animal behavior.
Current research is focused on mapping where individual squirrels bury nuts taken from the same place, and how squirrels learn to maneuver around and through obstacles (like bird feeders) to get food.