Jul 30, 2014
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Cal Research: Investing Tips from Squirrels?

A study of the nut-hiding habits of UC Berkeley campus squirrels may offer lessons for human investing, such as diversification and how to remember where you put your savings, campus officials say.

Perhaps you know how to avoid nutty investment strategies.

Or perhaps you could learn from the critters with the switching tails. The long-term savings approach used by squirrels in storing nuts may have applications for humans, say UC Berkeley officials.

Campus researchers are examining the nut-hiding habits of campus fox squirrels, known for their bushy tails and reddish-tinged fur, not to mention their reputation for being what the researchers' website calls "cheeky."

The researchers are tailing the squirrels around campus using GPS technology to create a detailed map of each tree, building, garbage can or other cavity where the nuts are stashed.

“We’ve compiled a list of more than 1,000 locations where the nuts are buried,” said Mikel Delgado, a psychology Ph.D. student leading the research team. She was quoted in a news release from the university.

A few of the study participants have been given names, including Flame, Rocket and a three-legged, tail-less female called Peter, who likes to hang out in a bucolic esplanade between the chancellor's residence and Tolman Hall, home of the psychology students. The team tracks the study subjects by applying fur dye to their backs or sides.

“Think of them as little bankers depositing money and spreading it out in different funds, and doing some management of those funds,” Delgado said.

On the squirrels' menu are acorns, walnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts, almonds and the peanuts that the researchers offer. 

"Humans could learn something about padding their nest eggs from squirrels’ diversification efforts," says the campus release.

A focus of the study is learning how squirrels remember where they've hidden their food supply. While some scientists have postulated that they use sense of smell, Cal psychologist Lucia Jacobs, whose lab is conducting the squirrel research, found that they find their own nuts more often than the supplies of other squirrels and thus apparently have other ways of keeping track of their reserves.

One obstacle is that it's hard to interview the research subjects, so the Cal team is duplicating the experiment with students, having them bury Easter eggs on campus and seeing how long it takes to find them.

“We’re using humans as a model for squirrel behavior to ask questions that we can’t ask squirrels,” Delgado said.

This story originated on El Cerrito Patch.

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